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12 Etiquette Screw-Ups In 1896

An American parlor, circa 1890.
Library of Congress
An American parlor, circa 1890.

Manners still matter.

Later this month in Los Angeles, at the annual convention of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society — a group that focuses on making systems, devices and machines more human-friendly — researchers plan to report on a study showing that people want robots to be more mannerly and polite.

In America, though, manners and mores are ever morphing. And what was polite in the past — such as a man opening a door for a woman — is not always seen as polite in the present.

"Etiquette is driven by the times," says Mary M. Mitchell, an etiquette guru and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide To Modern Manners. But regardless of era: "Good manners create harmony. Etiquette prevents chaos."

12 Breaches Of Etiquette

Maud C. Cooke understood these concepts in 19th century America. She was the author of the 1896 guide Social Etiquette, Or, Manners and Customs of Polite Society: Containing Rules of Etiquette for All Occasions, Including Calls, Invitations, Parties, Weddings, Receptions, Dinners and Teas, Etiquette of the Street, Public Places, Etc., Etc.; Forming a Complete Guide to Self-culture ...

In the book, Cooke listed a dozen don'ts under the heading "Breaches of Etiquette." According to Cooke, it was a full-out faux pas when visiting someone's home to ...

  • Take off your gloves.
  • Look around the room a lot.
  • Touch the house piano while waiting for the host to appear.
  • Go to the room of an invalid unless you are invited in.
  • Look at your watch.
  • Walk around the room while waiting for the host to show up.
  • Shut or open a door or window or in any way alter the room's arrangement.
  • Turn your chair so that your back is near someone else.
  • Play with any object in the room or focus on anything other than the host.
  • Remain if you see that your host is ready to depart.
  • Draw near a fireplace unless you are invited to do so.
  • Make remarks about someone who has just left the room.
  • Those were the no-no's for "self-culture." What about "selfie culture"?

    "Maud Cooke was writing about social etiquette, and much of her content still applies," says Mitchell. But she points out that there is no recipe from Cooke for dealing with online misbehavior, cellphone boorishness or social media mistakes. "Today an etiquette book would be sorely lacking if it did not deal with such issues."

    In her business, Mitchell considers courtesies concerning "wellness, sex etiquette, getting offline to get sane, obesity. They never would have been topics of concern in earlier times. Just as wearing gloves inside someone's home no longer concerns us."

    Gender-Neutral Niceties

    Etiquette in the business world today "is pretty much the norm in the U.S. because the lines between work and social lives are very blurry," Mitchell says. "Social etiquette was based on the concept of deference, that is, men deferred to women because of age and gender. They were thought to need protection. Business etiquette is based on rank and, allegedly, is gender neutral. That is: The biggest star gets the top billing, regardless of gender."

    Mitchell's mentor-in-all-things-mannerly, Letitia Baldrige — who served as social secretary for first lady Jacqueline Kennedy — "was a pioneer in advocating that while women should be gracious when men offered them open doors or pulled out their chairs, women had no right to expect such deference — if at the same time women were demanding equal pay."

    To Baldrige, Mitchell adds, "Etiquette is little more than common sense coupled with kindness."

    Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.

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