How to greet in polite society.

Oh Behave! Some old world etiquette

Historian Jonathan's Smyth's latest column looks back at the idea of etiquette in times past.

In modern day culture, etiquette is what the pyramids are now to the Egyptians, a treasured artefact belonging to times more formal. Good manners were once the necessity of ‘civilised society’, long before the arrival of the keyboard warrior, who in biting tones takes aim at the world.

Countries like Japan still practise formal customs, there’s the well-executed bow, that can distinguish the difference between the acceptance or rejection of a business proposal. The Japanese are among the most kind, good-humoured and decent people you will meet.

Of course, some take etiquette to the extremes, which is not what anyone wants either. In times past, rigid etiquette ruled everyone’s life, especially in the world of the ‘big house’ where rules governed the behaviour of family members and the servants they employed. Fans of television dramas ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Bridgerton’ will understand from watching such sometimes excessive proprieties. During these days of lockdown, you have the perfect opportunity to brush up your knowledge of those old-time civilised skills. There are many aspects of etiquette to choose from. Here are a few tips from the advice books of yore:

Avoid gossip

One must remain on guard, being careful with whom an opinion is expressed. The old rules of propriety are essentially opposed to tattle. Say nothing, til’ you hear more, keeps Pandora’s box firmly closed and prevent slander actions reaching the courtroom.

Published in 1883, Walter R. Houghton’s American etiquette and Rules of Politeness warns us, that no person must attempt to ‘inflict upon society’ another member of that ‘despicable’ and ‘dangerous species’, the gossiper.

Avoid dwelling other’s conversation. This is wisdom in itself, for in many cases, hindsight’s rear-view mirror has enlightened an offender when it was too late. Stoking the rumour mill, said Houghton, was as ‘black as sin itself’, spreading slanderous bile, defaming the character of others.

In the big house, when a servant observes unpleasantness between family members of his or her employ, they must never divulge the juicy gossip, especially to strangers. The gentry did not want to read about their misdemeanours in the gossip columns of the gutter press, and to have it recycled as idle chat among local toffs, or the tenantry.


The Habits of Good Society: A Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, published in 1859, advises the female reader against having the wrong type of male companion by their side in public, and noted: - ‘Between me and these points of attraction there are two side-pavements and a very broad road. On the former I see specimens from every rank of male life, and the lower ranks of the other sex. The wretched urchin who converts his arms and legs into the spokes of a wheel, and thus runs by your side, presenting at last his bit of a cap for the well-earned halfpenny, has every whit as much interest for me as that stately being in a spotless frock-coat and double-breasted white waistcoat — Lord Charles Starch, I mean — who is stalking from Boodles’ to Brookes, and thinks that he does the pavement a great honour by the pressure of his perfect boot.’


Shyness, says the 19th century expert, affect ones ability to socialise and can be overcome by a little kindness with help, of a host or a close friend. In ‘The habits of good society: a Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen’, the unnamed author felt that the blushing boy or young girl who stares down at the floor is acceptable, but diffidence in the middle-aged, they state, is scarcely pardonable.

As for the young ‘who are entering into society’, the expert author added: ‘I would say, never be ashamed of your shyness, since, however painful it may be to you, it is far less disagreeable to others than the attempt to conceal it by familiarity’.

The book further advises: ‘The only way to treat familiarity arising from shyness is not to notice it but encourage the offender till you have given him or her confidence. It is a kindness as much to yourself as to the sufferer from shyness, to introduce merry subjects, to let fly a little friendly banter at him, until he thinks that you are deceived by his assumed manner, and, no longer afraid of being thought nervous, really gets rid of the chief cause of that feeling.’


Above all things, having a mouth like a sewer must be thoroughly discouraged. So too, the radical use of mild profanities like ‘what the Dickens’, or ‘goodness gracious’ must be eliminated because they too, may cause alarm on sensitive ears, and according to the experts, such words affected persons of polite society during the 19th century.


Cleanliness is a necessity, but, according to the experts, it mustn’t be exaggerated, like what happened with the ‘Pharisees’, or the ‘4th Duke of Queensbury’ who scrubbed himself each day in a bath of milk (presumably, he did not give the leftovers to calves, or to cool his tea). The Duke thought this helped him to ‘maintain his potency’. However, such ‘over-refinement’ of habits, we are told should not be encouraged.

Practitioners of good etiquette were warned of the perils of over-cleaning and its potential effect on one’s health, as in the case of the ‘lovely Princess Alexandria of Bavaria’, who tragically lost all reason due to extreme scrupulousness. Her problems began at the dinner table, examining dinner plates for the slightest speck, then requesting a cleaner plate when she found a mark. Her examination of everything from napkins, dishes, and tablecloths became a ‘monomania’, and resulted in her seeing masses of dirt everywhere and it weighed so heavily on her mind, that she believed she could never be clean enough. The unfortunate princess was in the end driven to total insanity. Perhaps, as Solomon Ibn Gabirol once said, ‘the test of good manners is to be patient with the bad ones’.


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