06 July 2008

Mind your manners, please

Having just finished reading a series of books set in the 1920s and 30s filled with details of calling cards and dressing for dinner, I’m currently obsessed with old systems of manners and etiquette. I’ve uncovered some gems, including the English Manners And Tone Of Good Society, Or Solecisms To Be Avoided by A Member of the Aristocracy (1879) and the American Mrs John M. E. W. Sherwood’s Manners and Social Usages (1887), both tomes booming with authority and low opinions of interlopers, climbers and anyone who dares to ignore their advice.

Here are two enlightening extracts from others, more than a century apart.

From Society Small Talk or What to Say and When to Say It, by A Member of the Aristocracy (1879): Dinner-table talk
Pleasant, agreeable "small talk," necessary as it is on all social occasions, is more particularly so at the most important of all social gatherings, namely, dinner parties, and it is at dinner-parties that the greatest call is made upon the social qualities of the guests, and upon their powers of making themselves agreeable.
To make pleasant easy small talk is to pave the way towards pleasant companionship, and the slightest thread is capable of being woven into a substantial fabric. A matter-of-fact conversation often commences in this wise, "We must take care not to tread upon that smart train," referring to the dress of a lady who was preceding a couple to the dining room.
"Yes, that would never do; trains are very graceful, if they are inconvenient," To which her companion might observe -
"Oh, I admire them, of course; I am only so afraid of treading upon them, and of bringing down the wrath of the fair wearer upon my devoted head. "
"Are you very unlucky in this way? And do you think a woman could not keep her temper if her gown were trodden upon?"
"Well, if you ask me really what I think about it, I should say she was a very exceptional woman if she stood such a test - but here we are; we are to sit this side."
Or - "Have you been to the French plays? I suppose you have."
"No, indeed, I have not; we thought of going one night next week, if we can get stalls."
"If you want to see a really good piece you should try and see____" and at this point of the conversation the name of the "only piece worth seeing" would be mentioned, and if the lady were endowed with tact and cleverness, she would lead her companion to give her his impressions of the piece, and of the cast; by which means she would gain a certain knowledge of the subject, while he would gain, what men most appreciate, a good listener. On such slight foundations as the foregoing, does the matter of fact, or the commonplace small talk rest. The gossipy and the polite small talk have a still flimsier raison d'être and run very much after this fashion.

From Debrett's Etiquette for Girls (2006): One-night stands
The one-night stand (ONS) is a bit like fast food: tempting but with nauseating afterthoughts. Any dark alley gropery on the way home is just not ladylike and is bound to be viewed by an audience or CCTV. Also, don't force taxi drivers to witness any indiscretions. Once home, leave him to marvel at your record collection and superior taste in wine while you do a turbo-tidy. Conceal any embarrassing exhibits if bothered by such trifles, but if it's a true ONS, is shouldn't matter. Then attend to the lighting, play some music and sit together. Slip shoes off, gently shake out hair, nibble seductively on a cocktail cherry and chuckle at his jokes. Then stop talking and smile with your best come-to-bed eyes - intimacy will surely follow.
Once you're in the bedroom, forget all about your cleanse/tone/moisturise bedtime routine, Leave make-up intact and pyjamas in their drawer.
If you're at his, the ONS is not over until the walk of shame - going home in last night's dishevelled clothes. Steel yourself for the aftermath and hold our head up high. If you wake up early, it is acceptable under the circumstance to slip out without waking him. If you are possessed of any concern for good manners, then it's imperative to leave a cute note and a good excuse, with or without your telephone number.
If at yours, offer him breakfast and, assuming you want no more of him, say that your mother is on her way round. Bear in mind, however, that concerted maturity and politeness will ultimately lessen your own shame.

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