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History Corner: In a Manner of Speaking…

History Corner: In a Manner of Speaking…

As I write this on the deadline date of the 4th, I am impelled to change my topic to one of the sign of the times…ill-mannered people. The holiday has only begun yet cars are vanishing before our eyes with speeds and carelessness that defies the imagination so early in the season. Standing in line is a given but why does the woman behind me have to yell over my head that she is not standing in line and wants to speak to the manager? It’s not all bad out there but the numbers seem to be climbing. Could that be the reason people are buying “online”?

I was driving out of a parking lot when a deliveryman was juggling a large number of boxes and I motioned for him to walk across when he bellowed, I’m waiting for you in a tone I took to be disagreeable. I did as he bid and watched in my rear-view mirror as he trundled off, boxes askew but he WAS waiting for me. No one seems to want to smile anymore or say thank you to a clerk as she stands on her or his feet for 6 hours at a time. When did we forget please, excuse me and thank you?

As is the saying today, “back in the day”, manners were a response to the violence and crude behaviors run rampant in the cities of Europe during the time between the 14th & 17th centuries. It was a means of reinforcing social order and an effort to distinguish between the privileged class and everyone else. Hmm. The dinner table appears to be the first of these efforts and it appears that Italy led this cultural revolution. In an early book on manners, “one should not comb his hair nor wash his hands in public…the exception being before dinner in front of everyone so that “whoever dips into the same bowl as you, will be certain of your cleanliness”.

Of course, one can imagine the dinner table and the foods consumed, the hands were the utensils. At one point in England using any type of fork for men was a sign of effeminacy. The two-tined fork came into being in Italy and was a success slowly making its way to northern Europe. Spoons were common as were knives but oh that fork…what a difference it made when not only the rich could afford them but the common society.

One writer noted it was unsuitable to put one’s nose over someone else’s glass of wine or food to smell it or to offer someone what you have half eaten yourself. Oh and it was boorish to redip half-eaten bread into your soup. Gee, I float a whole dinner roll in my soup, well not all soups. It might seem that we have returned to the sloppiness of medieval feasting with barbecued wings and legs eaten with our hands, burgers, pizza and “finger food” at the casual buffet. It was said, in an earlier book of manners, “all creatures eat but man only dines”. Another Hmm.

Not to be out done by European etiquette books, our very own George Washington transcribed Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. There are 110 rules but I will choose the ones I think you will enjoy reading.

Here goes.

  • Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
  • In the presence of others sing not to yourself with a humming noise, nor drum with your fingers or feet.
  • If you cough, sneeze, sigh or yawn, do it not loud but privately and speak not in your yawning but put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside.
  • Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace and walk not on when others stop.
  • Spit not in the fire, nor stoop before it to warm your hands, nor set your feet upon the fire especially if there be meat before it.
  • When you sit down, keep your feet firm and even without putting one on the other or crossing them.
  • Turn not your back to others especially in speaking, jog not the table or desk on which another reads or write nor lean on either one.
  • Read no letters, books or papers in company but when there is a necessity for the doing of it, you must ask leave. (Does cell phone fit here?)
  • Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave.
  • Do not laugh too loud or too much at any public spectacle.
  • If anyone comes to speak to you while sitting, stand up.
  • Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.
  • Wear not your clothes foul, unript or dusty but see they be brushed once everyday at least and heed that you approach not to any uncleanness.
  • Speak not of doleful things in a time of mirth or at the table, speak not of melancholy things and if others mention them, change if you can the discourse.
  • Be not curious to know the affairs of others neither approach those that speak in private.
  • Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.
  • Make no show of taking great delight in your food, feed not with greediness, lean not on the table nor find fault with what you eat.
  • Put not your meat to your mouth with your knife, neither spit forth the stones of any fruit upon a dish nor cast anything under the table.
  • Put not another bit into your mouth til the former be swallowed let not your morsels be too big for the jowls.
  • Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth, napkin, fork or knife but others do it, let it be done with a pick tooth.
  • Rinse not your mouth in the presence of others.
  • Do not breathe with too great a noise for it is uncivil.
  • Blow not your broth at table but stay till cools of itself.

Although some of these appear to be part of our manners today, there are others that deal with the hierarchy of the times and man’s place in that order. I noted that women were not part of these 110 rules that applied to men. But alas, there are many books on etiquette for women. The word etiquette comes from the French when proper, social behavior before Louis XIV was written on small cards and distributed to members of his court.

As the United States moved from an agrarian economy to one of an industrial-based economy, the rapid expansion of the middle class was evident. The newfound prosperity propelled them into unfamiliar social situations. By the middle of the 19th century, a number of books were published that provided a guide to these newly affluent citizens on proper social behavior. Is that what was meant by “everyone else”?

Happy Holidays

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