Good manners

Partly prompted by a recent discussion here, I dusted off an old book I possess which is a totally invaluable resource on etiquette. The book, published in 1922 in New York, is called (what else) The Book of Good Manners, by W.C. Green. Absolutely no social situation that requires a proper personal response is left out here. So I am glad to be able to pass on the following extracts from the book, which should remind us all that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things.

Men calling on women – the importance of a hat. A man making a formal or brief call should carry his hat in his hand into the parlor.

Men shaking hands, dealing with gloves. At weddings, operas or dances, and on all very formal occasions, men wear gloves. In shaking hands with women on these occasions gloves should not be removed. But: A man with hands gloved should never shake hands with a woman without an apology for so doing. Unless the other party is also gloved, a man should say: ‘Please excuse my glove.’

Mother. A mother should receive an invitation for any function to which her daughters are invited, and should go and return with them.

Expectorating. Expectorating on the pavement is a most reprehensible habit. If it must be done, a man should step to the curb and expectorate in the street.

Street-cars and other conveyances. The old custom of a man giving up his seat in a street-car to a woman is being gradually done away with. This is due largely to the fact that women are now so extensively engaged in commercial business that they are constant riders at the busy hours, and thus come into direct competition with men.
A well-bred man, however, will show his manliness by giving any woman his seat and standing himself, as she is less well fitted for such hardships and annoyances. In giving his seat to a woman, a man should politely bow and raise his hat.

The same author, by the way, also wrote a book entitled The Etiquette of Sex Revealed in Plain English. I may have to look for that.

However quaint all the above may seem (and is, by today’s standards), there is still an argument that we should pay more attention to courtesy and manners, if in an updated form. Manners are a form of consideration to others and form part of the glue that holds society together. Our inability as a society to hold on to that concept has brought in its wake various types of anti-social behaviour which, often, targets the most vulnerable. The should not dismiss the idea of etiquette too easily as outdated Victorian conduct. Though maybe we should be a little less concerned with gloves and hats.

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7 Comments on “Good manners”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    So, hands-up, who thinks a man should hold a door open for a woman? It is something that I am inclined to do but knowing I risk being condemned as a sexist pig. Or worse.
    And speaking of hats.. one custom that bothers me is tourists who don’t respect religious sensibilities when visiting religious buildings. I visit churches from time to time purely as a tourist but I take my hat off because thats the custom of the faithful – and so one should play by their rules- but not everyone else does. Likewise I was in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul recently and not all the female tourists respected the requirement to keep their heads covered. Bad show.

    • Jilly Says:

      I think the door thing is really simple: if you and another person get to a door almost at the same time, the first one to reach it holds it open for the other person, regardless of gender. So I hold doors open for men, and I expect them to do the same for me if they get there just before me.

      In the same way, I’m grateful if a man volunteers to help me reach something I’m slightly too short to get to, or lift something slightly too heavy for me: and I do the same for others shorter or less strong than myself. I see it as a gesture of kindness and good manners which doesn’t actually have anything to do with gender. By this rule, you offer your seat on buses or trains to someone significantly older or more infirm (or overladen) than yourself, whether you’re male or female. But equally, a man certainly shouldn’t feel obliged to offer seats to a woman who’s as young, fit and healthy as themselves!

      As for the post in general, I would make a distinction between etiquette and manners. The stuff about gloves is etiquette and not worth trying to learn. Manners on the other hand are about treating others (all others!) with respect and kindness, in order to make life easier and more pleasant for everyone.

      • I would agree with most of that, Jilly – manners should be gender-neutral. Regarding your comment about the relationship (or otherwise) between manners and etiquette, I would say yes and no. There is a difference, yes, but it is also the case that a sense of (relevant and up-to-date) etiquette creates a setting in which manners are more likely to be observed. Manners are not just a sense of respecting ‘the other’, they are also about what we believe society expects of us. There is research into this, that a society that expects its members to adhere to certain rules of conduct in dealings with others will experience lower levels of anti-social behaviour more generally and higher levels of mutual respect. That is a hard message to sell these days, but I believe it to be true.

        Mind you, etiquette thoughtlessly applied can also be both silly and counter-productive, and that isn’t a new insight:

  2. Vincent Says:

    ‘Partly prompted by a recent discussion here, I dusted off an old book I possess which is a totally invaluable resource on etiquette’. What happened, what did I miss.

    I did wonder about the ‘thing’ with the glove. And it is Glove, singular. At one stage I lived in the UK, and give the devil his due, they do know how to stock a library. Anyhow it was there I found the reference to the whys of the glove. The first had to do with the Sword, where the grip on the hilt was improved with the glove. 2nd, the pox. So, nothing whatsoever to do with women, leastwise not in the first instance. I seen to remember that the Gentlemen Barristers have something of the like also.

  3. Wendymr Says:

    The trouble with etiquette as a guide to good manners is that it is entirely culturally-based – and as a guide to how we should behave it has limited uses as society becomes more culturally mixed.

    In my job, for example, I shake hands with people a lot. Every time I greet a client, new or existing, the ritual is clear and defined by the etiquette of Western society: smile, make eye contact and shake hands. Now, some of my clients are Muslim. I have had some men decline to shake hands, though usually with a polite explanation that they do not shake hands with women and they intend no disrespect. I have had some women let me know, during our appointment, that they will not shake hands with a man, leading to a discussion of how to handle a job interview setting.

    And then, of course, there are individuals from other cultures to whom making eye contact is disrespectful – while in Western culture lack of eye contact is seen as not only disrespectful but also indicating that you may have something to hide.

    Do we insist that people adapt to our cultural expectations regardless of their own beliefs and values? Or should good manners actually mean that we don’t make people feel embarrassed or under pressure because their training in good manners is not the same as ours? Personally, I believe good manners is about making people feel comfortable and at ease, not remembering when and where to practice certain ritualistic customs 🙂

  4. Jilly Says:

    In reply to FvP above, I think we may be working with different concepts of etiquette, as I would completely agree with your points about expectations of behaviour etc. I think of etiquette as being modes of behaviour according to who someone is (all that nonsense about who walked into dinner with whom, and whether an Archbishop takes precedence over a Duke), and therefore in some ways is the opposite of good manners, which suggest that you show equal respect to everyone. That old cliche that a person’s manners can be measured by how they speak to waiters and shop assistants has a lot of truth to it. As a former shop assistant, I can tell you, your mind would boggle at the ways some people treat you…

    I would add that in this respect, I think that Ireland does rather well: I think that there’s a relatively high level of courtesy here by comparison to other countries (the US and the UK spring to mind), especially marked in public space.

  5. belfield Says:

    Perhaps the issue here isn’t so much to do with those rules of conduct that a society asks its members to adhere to in dealings with others, but rather the number who seem to believe that something about these times and busy & productive lives gives them some sort of right to set aside such considerations?
    Why discuss when you can inform? Why debate when the answer is obvious?

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