by Maria Grace
Etiquette is an integral part of every culture. Although the details differ among regions and historical periods, the concept of correct and incorrect ways to behave remains constant. Rules of polite behavior are essential elements of communication within a society, a social code that enables individuals to understand motives and subtle messages that are otherwise cumbersome to display through words alone.
These social rules are adopted and adapted over time. Some may be written into elaborate manuals, though many are unwritten, caught rather than taught among the population at large.
In general these rules reflect the values of a society. Following these rules demonstrates respect for the common morality and for other people. Obedience to the guidelines of good manners also reflects on the character of the individual and suggests one is well bred and refined.
In periods of great social transition, like the Regency, published manuals are especially abundant. Many pages in these manuals were filled with comments on general deportment and the behavior to be exhibited by individuals of good breeding. When trying to rise into higher levels of society, a family’s social standing could be made or broken by the ability to conform to all the conventions associated polite behavior.
Although these patterns of etiquette might appear awkward and restrictive, especially for women, they did act as a safeguard against misunderstanding and embarrassment for both parties. This was particularly true as well-bred women were thought to have a "natural" sense of delicacy. Taste and poise should come naturally to a lady, and it was an indictment against her breeding to be worried about looking correct.
Marks of Good Breeding
In line with the emphasis on elegance and formality, people were
encouraged to maintain an erect seating posture when sitting or standing. Slouching or leaning back was regarded as slothful unless the individual was infirm in some way. Similarly, a well-bred person walked upright and moved with grace and ease. Moreover, such a person maintained an elegance of manners and deportment and could respond to any social situation with calm assurance and no awkwardness.
Etiquette demanded a person behaved with courteous dignity to acquaintance and stranger alike at all times. Well-bred individuals and those seeking to be seen as such were instructed to keep at arm's length any who presumed too great a familiarity. Icy politeness was the best weapon in putting so-called 'vulgar mushrooms' in their place.
To be considered wall-mannered, an individual had to control their features, their physical bodies, and their speech when in company. Extremes of emotion and public outbursts were unacceptable, as was anything pretentious or flamboyant. A woman, though, could have the vapors, faint, or suffer from hysteria if confronted by vulgarity or an unpleasant scene.
All forms of vulgarity were unacceptable and to be continually guarded against. Laughter, too, was moderated in polite company, particularly among women. Men might engage in unrestrained mirth in the company of other men or among women of low repute for whom the rules of etiquette were more or less irrelevant.
These marks of good breeding were one means by which respect for others was demonstrated. Rituals of bowing and curtsying accomplished similar ends.
A bow or curtsy would be performed according to the status and relationship of the person encountered and with respect to the particular circumstance. For example, a bow or curtsey would be made on entering or leaving a room, though good friends and family were not always bowing to one another.
Bows and curtsies were expected at the beginning and end of a dance, and on encountering any person one wished to acknowledge. Children generally bowed or curtsied on meeting their parents for the first time each day.
When encountering people in public, etiquette suggested it was the woman's duty to acknowledge an acquaintance first by a slight bow with the head and shoulders. If she did not make such an acknowledgement, a gentleman should not acknowledge her.
Such recognition could only occur if the two individuals had been previously introduced.
It was unacceptable to speak to anyone of good breeding without a formal introduction by a third party.
The higher ranking individual (or the woman in the case of two equally ranking individuals) would indicate whether he or she wishes to permit the introduction of an inferior. In the case he or she desired an introduction, a third party would be asked to make one. At a public ball, the Master of Ceremonies would conduct this service to enable gentleman and ladies to dance. However, if the higher ranking person did not desire an introduction, one could not be forced upon them.
In some circumstances, the higher ranking person could introduce him or herself to the lower one. When introduced the people of lower rank bowed or curtsied. Gentlemen and ladies of equal rank bowed and curtsied when formally introduced to each other and again when parting.
Touching and tipping one's hat was a standard salutation, not returning it would be very rude. After being introduced, individuals always acknowledged each other in public, at minimum with a tip or touch to the hat or a slight bow of the shoulders. Failure to acknowledge an acquaintance was a breach in conduct and considered a cut. Manuals warned that a lady should never ‘cut’ someone unless ‘absolutely necessary’ and only ladies were truly justified in delivering a ‘cut’.
Servants and social inferiors were, of course the exception to this
rule. They were always kept at a proper distance but without arrogance, pride or aloofness. The well-bred individual spoke to servants with an appropriate degree of civility and avoided the casual informality with which a person might address an equal. Private business was not discussed in the presence of servants and they were generally ignored at mealtimes. Mocking or belittling servants or their families was deemed undignified and a sign of bad manners.
The heart of polite sociability was conversation. The whole purpose of conversation was to please other people and to be deemed pleasing. In general, conversation was tightly controlled by rules of etiquette as well. The list of unacceptable topics far outnumbered the acceptable ones.
A polite individual did not ask direct personal questions of someone they had just met. To question or even compliment anyone else on the details of their dress might also be regarded as impertinent. Personal remarks, however flattering, were not considered good manners. Etiquette manuals counseled such comments should be exchanged only with close family and intimate friends.
Similarly, scandal and gossip should be omitted from public conversation. Any references to pregnancy, childbirth, or other natural bodily functions were considered coarse and carefully sidestepped. A man could sometimes discuss his hunters or driving horses in the presence of ladies though it was generally discouraged. Greater latitudes of conversation were allowed when the genders were segregated, particularly for the men.
Not surprisingly, good manners required all forms of touching between members of the opposite sex were to be kept to a minimum. Putting a lady's shawl about her shoulders, or assisting her to mount a horse, enter a carriage and for a gentleman to take a lady's arm through his to support her while out walking were considered acceptable forms of courtesy.
Shaking hands though was not. In the Regency era, shaking hands was considered a mark of unusual affability or intimacy. Only gentlemen of about the same social class, who knew each other well, shook hands. Moreover, the intimacy of shaking hands was a mark of condescension, if offered by one of a higher rank.
Shaking hands with a person of the opposite sex was less frequent and less proper. A pressure of the hands, was the only external sign a woman could give of harboring a particular regard for certain gentleman and was not to be thrown away lightly. According to some contemporary conduct guides, a woman should avoid even touching the hand of a man who was not a family member.
Between sisters or ladies of equal age or rank a kiss on the cheek was acceptable. A gentleman might kiss a lady's hand, but kissing it 'passionately' was a gesture of excessive intimacy.
Though these rules might seem excessive, adherence to them was crucial, especially for ladies whose reputations were especially brittle. For those seeking admission to higher society, any breech in etiquette could be fatal to one’s social standing.
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