The Awkward Moment When You Insist on 19th-century Etiquette in Daily Life

3 May

Uncomfortable Scenario #1: 

You’re  walking across campus when you spot an acquaintance  a couple yards away, coming towards you down the sidewalk.  You know he/she/it must have seen you too, but you don’t know whether to say hey, just smile, or even make eye contact.  Ultimately one of you ends up pulling your cell phone out and pretending to text.  Don’t lie.  It’s happened to you too.

Worst of all, there seems to be no solution–or at least not one widely agreed upon by society.  Thus, I would like to humbly propose a rule of etiquette for greeting acquaintances, people whose names you don’t remember, and that guy who friended you on Facebook sophomore year after an American Studies club meeting that you never talk to but who keeps liking your status updates and somehow found you on Twitter: that for this matter, we revert to the etiquette of the late-19th century, when there was a rule for everything.  Everything.  Even this.

Scenario #1 Resolved: Do it like a Victorian.

These are the (abridged) guidelines set down by Victorian dancing master Lucien O. Carpenter in 1882 for “Etiquette for the Street.”  My annotations are in italics.

Her: “Your assistance, Mr. Forsyte, please. I’m finding it difficult to breath.”
Him: “Why yes, my rakish good looks and facial hair tend to have that effect on the fairer sex.”
Her: “Yeah? So do corsets.”

1. The lady should be first to recognize an acquaintance, whether intimate or not.  [This one’s on us, female humans.  If you’re friendly acquaintances, I think “hey” or “salutations and good day!” is suitable.  If it’s a rival or a frenemy, nod and raise an eyebrow contemptuously.]

2. The gentleman should raise his hat slightly, inclining and turning toward the lady in saluting. The hat should be raised by the hand farthest form the lady.  [If the male human is not wearing a hat, I suggest briefly raising the hand farthest from the female as a greeting.  Because everyone knows that using the hand closest to the lady is vulgar.  Obv.]

3. One salutation is all that civility requires when passing a person more than once on a public promenade or drive.  [Which is actually kind of useful to know, because how annoying is it when you’re passing someone who says “How are you?” or “What’s up?” when you really don’t have time to engage in a conversation?]

4. Never stare at any one, is a rule with no exceptions.

5. The gentleman should not smoke when driving or walking with ladies.  [Addendum: University of Alabama men, stop spitting on the sidewalk when someone is passing you.  You don’t need to be a Victorian to think that’s disgusting.]

6. If the lady with whom you are walking is saluted by another gentleman, acknowledge the same by removing your hat.  [Oooh, she must be popular.  Or my little sister.  In other words, nod to your rivals, gentlemen.]

7. Should you desire to converse with a lady you should happen to meet, do not detain her, but turn and walk in her direction.  [Perfect!  No more standing around uncomfortably in the middle of the sidewalk!]

Sarah and Angelina Grimké were abolitionists and suffragettes before it was cool to be an abolitionist or a suffragette.  And they could open their own doors JUST FINE.

8. While walking with a lady in a crowded thoroughfare and obliged to proceed singly, the gentleman should precede her to clear the way.  [Unless the lady is more physically imposing, or has a naturally unpleasant face/really intimidating glare that makes her look sour and unhappy in social situations but really comes in handy when staring down solicitors or Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I may or may not know this from personal experience.]

9. While walking with a lady, the gentleman should take the side next the street.  [Because if someone’s going to get run over by a car… I mean… horse and buggy, it’s going to be the man.  The funny thing is that when I was a kid and my little sister and I would go on walks, my mother told me I needed to stand on the street side.  Clearly, an asthmatic 10-year-old is so much more likely to survive a vehicular impact than an 8-year-old.  Makes perfect sense.]

10. Loud conversation should be avoided at all times.  [This one, I can get on board with.  Nobody wants to hear about how you totally don’t remember what happened at that party last night, irresponsible freshman girl.  Nobody.]

I’m Absolutely Serious About This

Okay, so I realize that, the further down the list you get, the more archaically chivalrous the guidelines get.  Personally, I’m in total agreement with the estimable Grimké sisters on chivalry being somewhat condescending and demeaning to women (the worst thing about Alabama has been the tendency of people to hold a door open for me when I’m still really far away, making me run to relieve them).  But for awkward public greeting situations, the first three rules are gold.

Follow this link for more sources on the sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-cringeworthy, and sometimes even a little useful rules of 19th century etiquette.

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3 Responses to “The Awkward Moment When You Insist on 19th-century Etiquette in Daily Life”

  1. J. G. Burdette May 4, 2012 at 8:22 am #

    Get run over by the horse and buggy? Yes I guess that is Victorian politeness. Enjoyed the education in etiquette.

  2. thebrightoldoak May 6, 2012 at 1:48 am #

    Interesting article! I’m glad you commented on it, as I’ve seen many books which take inspiration from Victorian etiquette, but it’s mostly reworked version that only seek to inspire humour with few words shared.

  3. mirrorwithamemory May 7, 2012 at 7:52 am #

    I love your annotations! A very interesting, funny, and thought-provoking read. And spitting on the sidewalk…ew.

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