Miscellaneous Tips on Courtesy


 

There is nothing more ill bred in the world than continual talking about good breeding.

You should never employ the word “genteel;” the proper word is “respectable.”

If you are walking down the street with another person on your arm, and stop to say something to one of your friends, do not commit the too common and most awkward error of introducing such persons to one another. Never introduce morning visitors, who happen to meet in your parlor without being acquainted. If you should be so introduced, remember that the acquaintance afterwards goes for nothing: you have not the slightest right to expect that the other should ever speak to you.

If you wish to be introduced to a lady, you must always have her consent previously asked; this formality it is not necessary to observe in the case of gentlemen alone.

Presents are the gauge of friendship. They also serve to increase it, and give it permanence.

Among friends presents ought to be made of things of small value; or, if valuable, their worth should be derived from the style of the workmanship, or from some accidental circumstance, rather than from the inherent and solid richness. Especially never offer to a lady a gift of great cost: it is in the highest degree indelicate, and looks as if you were desirous of placing her under an obligation to you, and of buying her good will. The gifts made by ladies to gentlemen are of the most refined nature possible: they should be little articles not purchased, but deriving a priceless value as being the offspring of their gentle skill; a little picture from their pencil, or a trifle from their needle.

To persons much your superiors, or gentlemen whom you do not know intimately, there is but one species of appropriate present—game.

If you make a present, and it is praised by the receiver, you should not yourself commence undervaluing it. If one is offered to you, always accept it; and however small it may be, receive it with civil and expressed thanks, without any kind of affectation. Avoid all such deprecatory phrases, as “I fear I rob you,” etc.

To children, the only presents which you offer are sugar-plums and bon-bons.

Avoid the habit of employing French words in English conversation; it is in extremely bad taste to be always employing such expressions as ci-devant, soi-disant, en masse, couleur de rose, etc.  Do not salute your acquaintances with bon jour, nor reply to every proposition, volontiers.

In speaking of French cities and towns, it is a mark of refinement in education to pronounce them rigidly according to English rules of speech. Mr. Fox, the best French scholar, and one of the best bred men in England, always sounded the x in Bordeaux, and the s in Calais, and on all occasions pronounced such names just as they are written.

In society, avoid having those peculiar preferences for some subjects, which are vulgarly denominated. “_hobby horses._” They make your company a bore to all your friends; and some kind-hearted creature will take advantage of them and trot you, for the amusement of the company.

A certain degree of reserve, or the appearance of it, should be maintained in your intercourse with your most intimate friends. To ordinary acquaintances retain the utmost reserve--never allowing them to read your feelings, not, on the other hand, attempting to take any liberties with them. Familiarity of manner is the greatest vice of society. “Ah! allow me, my dear fellow,” says a rough voice, and at the same moment a thumb and finger are extended into my snuff-box, which, in removing their prey drop half of it upon my clothes,--I look up, and recognize a person to whom I was introduced by mistake last night at the opera. I would be glad to have less fellowship with such fellows. In former times great philosophers were said to have demons for familiars,--thereby indicating that a familiar man is the very devil.

Remember, that all deviations from prescribed forms, on common occasions, are vulgar; such as sending invitations, or replies, couched in some unusual forms of speech. Always adhere to the immemorial phrase,--“Mrs. X. requests the honor of Mr, Y.’s company,” and “Mr. Y. has the honor of accepting Mrs. X.’s polite invitation.” Never introduce persons with any outlandish or new-coined expressions; but perform the operation with mathematical precision—“Mr. A., Mr. A’; Mr. A’, Mr. A.”

When two gentlemen are walking with a lady in the street, they should not be both upon the same side of her, but one of them should walk upon the outside and the other upon the inside.

When you walk with a lady, even if the lady be young and unmarried, offer your arm to her. This is always done in France, and is practiced in this country by the best bred persons. To be sure, this is done only to married women in France, because unmarried women never walk alone with gentlemen, but as in America the latter have the same freedom as the former, this custom should here be extended to them.

If you are walking with a woman who has your arm, and you cross the street, it is better not to disengage your arm, and go round upon the outside. Such effort evinces a palpable attention to form, and that is always to be avoided.

A woman should never take the arms of two men, one being upon either side; nor should a man carry a woman upon each arm.  The latter of these iniquities is practiced only in Ireland; the former perhaps in Kamskatcha. There are, to be sure, some cases in which it is necessary for the protection of the women, that they should both take his arm, as in coming home from a concert, or in passing, on any occasion, through a crowd.

When you receive company in your own house, you should never be much dressed. This is a circumstance of the first importance in good breeding.

A gentleman should never use perfumes; they are agreeable, however, upon ladies.

Avoid the use of proverbs in conversation, and all sorts of cant phrases. This error is, I believe, censured by Lord Chesterfield, and is one of the most offensively vulgar things which a person can commit. We have frequently been astonished to hear such a slang phrase as “the whole hog” used by persons who had pretensions to very superior standing. We would be disposed to apply to such an expression a criticism of Dr. Johnson’s, which rivals it in Coarseness:

“It has not enough salt to keep it from stinking, enough wit to prevent its being offensive.” We do not wish to advocate any false refinement, or to encourage any cockney delicacy: but we may be decent without being affected. The stable language and raft humor of Crockett and Downing may do very well to amuse one in a morning paper, but it exhibits little wit and less good sense to adopt them in the drawing-room.  This matter should be “reformed altogether.”

If a plate be sent to you, at dinner, by the master or mistress of the house, you should always take it, without offering it to all your neighbors as was in older times considered necessary. The spirit of antique manners consisted in exhibiting an attention to ceremony; the spirit of modern manners consists in avoiding all possible appearance of form.  The old custom of deferring punctiliously to others was awkward and inconvenient. For, the person, in favor of whom the courtesy was shown, shocked at the idea of being exceeded in politeness, of course declined it, and a plate was thus often kept vibrating between two bowing mandarins, till its contents were cold, and the victims of ceremony were deprived of their dinner. In a case like this, to reverse the decision which the host has made as to the relative standing of his guests, is but a poor compliment to him, as it seems to reprove his choice, and may, besides, materially interfere with his arrangements by rendering unhelped a person whom he supposes attended to.

The same avoidance of too much attention to yielding place is proper in most other cases. Shenstone, in some clever verses, has ridiculed the folly; and Goldsmith, in his “Vicar,” has censured the inconvenience, of such outrageous formality.  These things are now managed better. One person yields and another accepts without any controversy.

When you are helped to anything at a dinner table, do not wait, with your plate untouched, until others have begun to eat. This stiff-piece of mannerism is often occurring in the country, and indeed among all persons who are not thoroughly bred. As soon as your plate is placed before you, you should take up your knife and arrange the table furniture around you, if you do not actually eat.

As to the instruments by which the operation of dining is conducted, it is a matter of much consequence that entire propriety should be observed as to their use. We have said nothing about the use of silver forks, because we do not write for savages; and where, excepting among savages, shall we find any who at present eat with other than a French fork?. There are occasionally to be found some ancients, gentlemen of the old school, as it is termed, who persist in preferring steel, and who will insist on calling for a steel fork if there is none on the table. They consider the modem custom an affectation, and deem that all affectation should be avoided. They tread upon the pride of Plato, with more pride. There is often affectation in shunning affectation. It is better in things not material to submit to the established habits, especially when, as in the present case, the balance of convenience is decidedly on the part of fashion. The ordinary custom among well bred persons, is as follows:--soup is taken with a spoon. Some foolish fashionables employ a fork! They might as well make use of a broomstick. The fish which follows is eaten with a fork, a knife not being used at all. The fork is held in the right hand, and a piece of bread in the left. For any dish in which cutting is not indispensable, the same arrangement is correct. When you have upon your plate, before the dessert, anything partially liquid, or any sauces, you must not take them up with a knife, but with a piece of bread, which is to be saturated with the juices, and then lifted to the mouth. If such an article forms part of the dessert, you should eat it with a spoon. In carving, steel instruments alone are employed. For fowls a peculiar knife is used, having the blade short and the handle very long. For fish a broad and pierced silver blade is used.

A dinner—we allude to _dinner-parties_--in this country, is generally dispatched with too much hurry. We do not mean, that persons commonly eat too fast, but that the courses succeed one another too precipitately. Dinner is the last operation of the day, and there is no subsequent business which demands haste. It is usually intended, especially when there are no ladies, to sit at the table till nine, ten, or eleven o’clock, and it is more agreeable that the eating should be prolonged through a considerable portion of the entire time. The conveniences of digestion also require more deliberation, and it would therefore not be unpleasant if an interval of a quarter of an hour or half an hour were allowed to intervene between the meats and the dessert.

At dinner, avoid taking upon your plate too many things at once. One variety of meat and one kind of vegetable is the maximum. When you take another sort of meat, or any dish not properly a vegetable, you always change your plate.

The fashion of dining inordinately late in this country is foolish. It is borrowed from England without any regard to the difference in circumstances between the two nations. In London, the whole system of daily duties is much later. The fact of parliament’s sitting during the evening and not in the morning, tends to remove the active part of the day to a much more advanced hour. When persons rise at ten or two o’clock, it is not to be expected that they should dine till eight or twelve in the evening. There is nothing of this sort in France. There they dine at three, or earlier. We have known some fashionable dinners in different cities in this country at so late an hour as eight or nine o’clock. This is absurd, where the persons have all breakfasted at eight in the morning. From four o’clock till five varies the proper hour for a dinner party here.

Never talk about politics at a dinner table or in a drawing room.

When you are going into a company it is of advantage to run over in your mind, beforehand, the topics of conversation which you intend to bring up, and to arrange the manner in which you will introduce them. You may also refresh your general ideas upon the subjects, and run through the details of the few very brief and sprightly anecdotes which you are going to repeat; and also have in readiness one or two brilliant phrases or striking words which you will use upon occasion. Further than this it is dangerous to make much preparation. If you commit to memory long speeches with the design of delivering them, your conversation will  become formal, and you will be negligent of the observations of your company. It will tend also to impair that habit of readiness and quickness which it is necessary to cultivate in order to be agreeable.

You must be very careful that you do not repeat the same anecdotes or let off the same good things twice to the same person. Richard Sharpe, the “conversationist” as he was called in London, kept a regular book of entry, in which he recorded where and before whom he had uttered severally his choice sayings. The celebrated Bubb Doddington prepared a manuscript book of original faceti’, which he was accustomed to read over when he expected any distinguished company, trusting to an excellent memory to preserve him from iteration.

If you accompany your wife to a ball, be very careful not to dance with her.

The lady who gives a ball dances but little, and always selects her partners.

If you are visited by any company whom you wish to drive away forever, or any friends whom you wish to alienate, entertain them by reading to them your own productions.

If you ask a lady to dance, and she is engaged, do not prefer a request for her hand at the next set after that, because she may be engaged for that also, and for many more; and you would have to run through a long list of interrogatories, which would be absurd and awkward.

A gentleman must not expect to shine in society, even the most frivolous, without a considerable stock of knowledge. He must be acquainted with facts rather than principles. He needs no very sublime sciences; but a knowledge of biography and literary history, of the fine arts, as painting, engraving, music, etc., will be of great service to him.

Some men are always seen in the streets with an umbrella under their arm. Such a foible may be permitted to such men as Mr. Southey and the Duke of Wellington: but in ordinary men it looks like affectation, and the monotony is exceedingly boring to the sight.

To applaud at a play is not fashionable; but it is respectable to evince by a gentle concurrence of one finger and a hand that you perceive and enjoy a good stroke in an actor.

If you are at a concert, or a private musical party, never beat time with your feet or your cane. Nothing is more unpleasant.

Few things are more agreeable or more difficult, than to relate anecdotes with entire propriety. They should be introduced gracefully, have fit connection with the previous remarks, and be in perfect keeping with the company, the subject and the tone of the conversation; they should be short, witty and eloquent, and they should be new but not far-fetched.

In rapid and eager discourse, when persons are excited and impatient, as at a ball or in a promenade, repeat nothing but the spirit and soul of a story, leaping over the particulars.  There are however many places and occasions in which you may bring out the details with advantage, precisely, but not tediously. When you repeat a true story be always extremely exact. Mem. Not to forget the point of your story, like most narrators.

When you are telling a flat anecdote by mistake, laugh egregiously, that others may do the same: when you repeat a spirited and striking bon mot, be grave and composed, in order that others may not be the same.

For one who has traveled much, to hit the proper medium between too much reserve and too much intrusion, on the subject of his adventures, is not easy. Such a person is expected to give amusement by pleasant histories of his travels, and it is agreeable that he should do so, yet with moderation; he should not reply to every remark by a memoir, commencing, “When I was in Japan.”

Rampant witticisms which require one to laugh, are apt to grow fatiguing: it is better to have a sprightly and amusing vein running through your conversation, which, betraying no effort, allows one to be grave without offence, or to smile without pain.

Punning is now decidedly out of date. It is a silly and displeasing thing, when it becomes a habit. Some one has called it the wit of fools. It is within the reach of the most trifling, and is often used by them to puzzle and degrade the wise. Whatever may be its merits, it is now out of fashion.

It is respectable to go to church once on Sunday. When you are there, behave with decency. You should never walk in fashionable places on Sunday afternoon. It is notoriously vulgar. If your health requires you to take the air, you should seek some retired street.

In conversation avoid such phrases as “My dear sir or madam.”

A gentleman is distinguished as much by his composure as by any other quality. His exertions are always subdued, and his efforts easy. He is never surprised into an exclamation or startled by anything. Throughout life he avoids what the French call scenes, occasions of exhibition, in which the vulgar delight. He of course has feelings, but he never exhibits any to the world. He hears of the death of his pointer or the loss of an estate with entire calmness when others are present.

It is very difficult for a literary man to preserve the perfect manners and exact semblance of a gentleman. He must be able to throw aside all the qualities which authorship tends to stamp so deeply upon him, and thoroughly to despise the cant of the profession. Yet this must be done without any affectation. Upon the whole, unless he has rare tact, he will please as much by going into company with all the marks of his employment upon his manners, than by awkwardly attempting to throw off his load. One would rather see a man with his fingers inked, than to see him nervously striving to cover them with a tattered kid glove. As to literary ladies, they make up their minds to sacrifice all present and personal admiration for future and abiding renown.

It is not considered fashionable to carry a watch. What has a fashionable man to do with time? Besides he never goes into those obscure parts of the town where there are no public clocks, and his servant will tell him when it is time to dress for dinner. A gentleman carries his watch in his pantaloons with a plain black ribbon attached. It is only worthy of a shop-boy to put it in his waistcoat pocket.

Custom allows to men the privilege of taking snuff, however untidy this habit may appear. If you affect the “tangible smell,” always take it from a box, and not from your waistcoat pocket or a paper. The common opinion, that Napoleon took snuff from his pocket, (which fact, by the way, is denied by Bourrienne,) has for ever driven this convenient custom from the practice of gentlemen, for the same reason that Lord Byron’s anti-neckcloth fashion has compelled every man of sense to bind a cravat religiously about his throat.  As to taking snuff from a paper, it is vile.

Women should abstain most scrupulously from tobacco, for nothing can be more fatal to their divinity: they should at least avoid it until past fifty;--that is to say, if a woman past fifty can anywhere be found. Chewing is permitted only to galley-slaves and metaphysicians.

It was a favorite maxim of Rivarol, “Do you wish to succeed?  Cite proper names.” Rivarol is dead in exile, having left behind him little property and less reputation. Judging from all experience, if we were to frame an extreme maxim, it should be, “If you wish to succeed never cite a proper name.” It will make you agreeable and hated. Your conversation will be listened to with interest, and your company shunned with horror. You will obtain the reputation of a gossip and a scandal-bearer, and you will soon be obliged either to purchase a razor or apply for a passport. If you are holding a tête-à-tête with a notorious Mrs. Candour, then, indeed, your tongue should be as sharp and nimble as the forked lightning. You must beat her at her own weapons, and convince her that it would be dangerous to traduce your character to others.

A bachelor is a person who enjoys everything and pays for nothing; a married man is one that pays for everything and enjoys nothing. The one drives a sulky through life, and is not expected to take care of any one but himself: the other keeps a carriage, which is always too full to afford him a comfortable seat. Be cautious then how you exchange your sulky for a carriage.

In ordinary conversation about persons employ the expressions men and women; gentleman and lady are distinctive appellations, and not to be used upon general occasions.

You should say forte-piano, not piano-forte: and the street door, not the front door.

“A man may have virtue, capacity, and good conduct,” says La Bruyre, “and yet be insupportable; the air and manner which we neglect, as little things, are frequently what the world judges us by, and makes them decide for or against us.”

In your intercourse with the world you must take persons as they are, and society as you find it. You must never oppose the one, nor attempt to alter the other. Society is a harlequin stage, upon which you never appear in your own dress nor without a mask. Keep your real dispositions for your fireside, and your real character for your private friend. In public, never differ from anybody, nor from anything. The agreeable man is one who agrees.

 



       

 

Original text by A Gentleman [1836], edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 


 

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