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.
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!]
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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