Yes, Please and Thank You – the Practice of Polite
May 27, 2015 | by Ellen Dial
My friend Becky’s thoughtful review of “The Age of Adeline” (I’ll wait for Netflix, thank you!) and her comments regarding Miss Adaline’s old school manners got me thinking about this topic, or better yet, the lack manners in today’s world.
Once upon a time, men stood when a lady entered a room. Held the door for ladies or others requiring assistance. Removed his hat when inside. Adults were addressed as Mr/Mrs/Miss until permission was granted to use given names. Table manners were taught from a young age. Certain subjects weren’t discussed with strangers. We said “please” and “thank you”. Respect was shown to our elders and others in a position of authority. Why was Adeline so ladylike? What were some of the expectations of polite society back in the day?
Let’s take a romp through the past life of minding ones manners. Join me as we explore these three little niceties: yes, please and thank you – the practice of polite.
Mind Your Manners | Those Crazy Victorians
One has to love the rigidity and structure of Victorian society. A persons social reputation could be built on good manners or destroyed by a seemingly silly (by todays standards) social gaffe.
So, how were you expected to behave in society? Some of the rules were a bit over the top, but some still make sense today.
Ladies did not comport themselves across the ballroom without a male escort. A gentleman should endeavor in keeping an eye out for those ladies who had been abandoned upon arrival at the event. A lady didn’t converse or dance with a gentleman to whom she had not been properly introduced.
The differences in your public and private table manners were few, good table manners were practiced even when dining alone. Don’t chew loudly or with your mouth open. Don’t put too much food on your plate or in your mouth. Elbows off the table. Loud conversations at the table was considered poor form. Bread is to be torn, not cut. It is not to be used to sop up sauces or gravy (oooh! There’s a one I would have issue with!). One didn’t commence eating until everyone at the table had been served. Do not sneeze or cough at the table if it can be helped. Don’t pick your teeth at the table, if you must, hold your napkin in front of your mouth.
Dress appropriately for your age, body type and the event at hand. Be completely and properly dressed when leaving the house. The adjustment of ones costume or hair in public was considered rude, didn’t you have time to dress before you left? Jewelry was for evening and formal wear – faux jewels were never appropriate.
The public cutting was considered poor form for ladies. A gentleman’s cutting was considered an affront. If you disliked or disrespected a person, you still inclined your head when you saw them. Ladies and gentlemen did not stare at others, even if they were “ different” or had an infirmity, this was considered very rude (and still is today, you probably shouldn’t take a picture either, just sayin’).
Gentlemen were expected to give up their seats on public transportation for ladies and to assist them on/off the conveyance with a kind word and tip of your hat. A gentleman always walks to the right of a lady, protecting her from the insults of the street. He should endeavor to carry her packages. A gentleman should spit as politely and as infrequently as possible, there was a lot of discussion around spit. Spit was definitely a thing.
Additionally, a whole slew of rituals regarding calling on friends, acquaintances and new neighbors existed. Specific calling times and behaviors were to be respected and adhered to. Ladies had days in which they were “at home” and receiving callers.
Mind Your Manners | The Fast and Loose Edwardians
After the death of the beloved Queen Victoria, a new sheriff was in town – King Edward the Caresser, as he was known, brought along a less restrictive moral compass. A known womanizer, Edward supposedly had an affinity for young prostitutes and pursued single/ married ladies with equal zeal. Old rituals, manners and the institution of marriage were questioned.
Young ladies still didn’t spend any great amount of time alone with young gentlemen. But in the same breath, they could get away with more, participating in group sport and the like. As long as it wasn’t unseemly. One must not be unseemly.
Good table manners still abounded. Edwardian dinner parties could consist of 10 plus courses (I can’t imagine!), all with corresponding wine service and cutlery. One had to know what to do with what, in what order and when. Women still “went through” after the meal, leaving gentlemen to their cigars, after dinner drinks and potentially rude (and therefor more interesting!) conversation.
The biggest change had to do with marriage and the sharing of personal information. Once a woman was married and had produced a son/heir? She was free game. Adultery become more common among women, as long as the lady was discrete? She could take a lover. Men occasionally enjoyed a more “varied” private life, but with the push of Womens Sufferage and a broader understanding of birth control, the Edwardian woman could do the same, within reason, naturally… (the old double standard!)
Can you say TMI? People were much more likely to share personal information at the dinner table or with people they didn’t really know , i.e. “my father is a degenerate gambler” and other pieces of personal information. Seems tame considering, right?
The Great War ended this wantoness – but fostered change.
Mind Your Manners | The Jazz Age and the Downward Spiral
Nineteenth century formality began to fade as hemlines rose, the war pushed things along as did prohibition and women voting (oh the scandal!). The flapper may have eschewed “polite society”, but in general a lot of the Victorian sensibilities remained – calling adults Mr/Mrs/Miss, men rising when women approached, doors being opened, hats removed. Proper table manners taught and expected to be practiced.
What really changed? Men and women mixed more freely, young couples could be alone (for the most part) and not cause too much of a stir. Both sexes could smoke more openly (and at the dinner table! Gross, right?), the formality of “calling on” eased as society became less formal – one was still encouraged to use common sense (not at meal time, first thing in the morning or late at night). Calling cards were still a thing. Some very proper ladies continued “at home” times.
The social expectation of being mannerly and courteous continued well into the early 1960’s. With a general unraveling of the practice of polite gaining momentum with the fade out of the beatnik and the advent of the hippies…
It’s groovy! Peace, brother!
But really, were we still polite?
Yes. When not confronting police barricades, being tear-gassed or blowing up stuff. Yes, we were still pretty polite! Really, we were. We may have dissed “the man”, but we said please and thank you while doing so.
The 80’s saw a slight resurgence of politeness (though society was thought to be grossly rude, if only they knew!), with the push for corporate etiquette. I remember being taken out to dinner as a part of the interview process during this time. Why? My potential employer wanted to make sure I had good table manners, knew how to socialize and didn’t get drunk at dinner. The person interviewing you or to whom you were introduced was Ms. Chickenbisket until she said, “please call me Savory” – it all depended on corporate culture, of course.
We’ve become painfully casual in the 21st century, you could argue downright rude. Technology has pushed things along, turning the ladies room into a phone/photo booth, negating any illusion of privacy. Table manners are negligible and kindness to strangers a rarity.
It’s all about ME. (not me, me. But me, the individual – the rest of you be damned!)
You may be thinking – I don’t need the door held, I don’t need to be polite to the Gas ‘n Sip clerk or I’m too busy to say hello. It’s not about one sex being superior or better. It’s not a sign of helplessness. It’s about respect. Even back in the day it wasn’t about those things, the books on etiquette stressed respect and civility. Being nice to one another. A man was courteous towards a woman because he respected her and wanted to offer his assistance, not because she was less than he.
I’m challenging our readers – step back and take at look at your own manners, do you say “please” and “thank you” to others with sincerity, making eye contact and smiling? Do you hold the door for older people or others who might require some assistance? How are your table manners – do you place your napkin in your lap and not hold your fork like it’s a lethal weapon? Do you wait until everyone is served before you begin to eat? Yes, no, for the most part?
Let’s take back courtesy, shall we?
Have questions about manners? Check out Emily Post’s “Etiquette” 18th Edition or “Everyday Etiquette: How to Navigate 101 Common and Uncommon Social Situations” by Patricia Rossi.
Thank you to wikipedia.com, chicagotribune.com, “The Ladies Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness” by Florence Hartley, clutchmagonline.com and goodguyswag.com. As well as those who post their images freely on the internet.