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Eleanor Roosevelt's Book of Common Sense Etiquette
By Eleanor Roosevelt
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
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Manners of Other Days
ETIQUETTE IS A FRENCH word which means "ticket" or "label." During the reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715) the functions at the French Court were so elaborate that it became necessary to give every visitor a ticket (une étiquette) on which were listed the formalities he was expected to observe. Thus, his behavior, if correct, was "according to the ticket." It is in this sense that we have taken the word into English and it has come to mean a code of conduct or behavior that is considered socially correct.
But long before the French Court in all its complexity adopted this device, in fact long before Western civilization came into being, ancient philosophers were concerned with man's conduct in relation to his fellows. No people have ever paid closer attention to the matter of formal courtesy than the ancient Chinese. The Li Ki, compiled by Confucius over twenty-five hundred years ago, says, "Of all the methods for the ordering of man, there is none more urgent than the use of ceremonies." Yet Confucius, who was a stickler for the proprieties of social custom, cautioned against letting behavior become too elaborate. In this matter of rituals and ceremonies, he wrote, "rather than be extravagant, be simple."
There are numerous other examples from the Chinese, many of which are so solidly founded in common sense that they apply today. For example, Chuang Tse (fifth century B.C.) said simply: "If you are always offending others by your superiority, you will come to grief. Trying to make the customs of Chu succeed in Lu is like pushing a boat on land." To Chuang Tse society was "an agreement between a certain number of families and individuals to abide by certain customs."
The ancient sacred books of the Hindus and Buddhists also contain many excellent rules for behavior, some of which sound so modern that they might appear in one of today's etiquette columns. One of these cautions us against picking our teeth, blowing our noses loudly, yawning without covering our mouths, and biting our nails.
I was told as a child that it was discourteous to eat everything on my plate when I was a guest. To do so was an indication of greediness and implied that the hostess had not provided enough to eat. Indian children were told the same thing nearly two thousand years ago, for one of the Puranas cautions: "Nor should a man eat so as nothing will be left of his meal."
My grandmother came to believe, however, that food was needed in the world and we who had an abundance should not waste it. Then I was cautioned never to take more on my plate than I could eat!
Some of the ancients showed a sophistication and understanding of tact ythat is quite astonishing. The Mahabharata, of India, composed between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200, contains a rule which sounds as though it might have been written by the cynical eighteenth century writer Samuel Johnson: "Whoever desires to succeed in this world must be prepared to make deep bows, swear love and friendship, speak humbly and pretend to shed and wipe away tears."
It is particularly interesting to me that so many of these rules for good manners are recorded in the sacred books of the world's great religions. The authors seemed to feel that not only cleanliness but also courtesy are next to godliness and that what we now think of as "etiquette" is part of the religious life. Many of the tenets in all the codes of behavior in the West have their origins in the Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in the teachings of the great rabbis, and in the words of the fathers of the Christian Church.
Though many of our guides to proper behavior come from ancient religious thought, we have inherited others from the early royal courts where manners were based on reverence to a sovereign and where knights were the standard-bearers of courtesy.
Today, a gentleman raises his hat to a lady because it is the accepted way of showing respect. Originally when a king's crown was the symbol of supreme authority and other head covering denoted the rank and power of the wearer, every man was expected to uncover his head in the presence of a higher rank and men of equal rank bared their heads in each other's presence. During the Middle Ages this courtesy was extended to women. As democratic principles spread and tended to level rank and privilege, the custom became gradually confined to meetings with women.
In the days when armed men approached each other warily, they extended a bared hand to demonstrate that no violence was contemplated. Today, the extended hand and the handclasp denote simply friendship.
Today, it is customary under certain circumstances to honor a visiting dignitary with a salute of guns. This, like the bare hand, originally promised a friendly reception. The guns, once fired, could no longer threaten the visitor.
In the early days of Puritan New England, codes of manners were part of an overall religious way of life and our stern Puritan forebears enforced these rules with the same vigor that they enforced religious obligations. Scandalmongering, cursing, name calling, and even jeering at others were offenses punishable by flogging, ducking, or being placed in the stocks.
Manuals of etiquette were widely circulated in America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most came from England and were frequently adapted from Lord Chesterfield's advice to his son. These were bitterly denounced by many of the Puritans who felt that religion was the basis of all good conduct. Yet many of Chesterfield's admonitions, along with their urbanity, contained a common-sense wisdom and made an impact on the American consciousness that is still reflected in contemporary books of etiquette.
Take the tone of the company that you are in. ... Do as you would be done by is the surest method that I know of pleasing. Advice is seldom welcome; and those who want it the most always like it the least. ... Speak of the moderns without contempt and of the ancients without idolatry. ... Wear your learning like your watch, in a private pocket; and do not pull it out and strike it merely to show that you have one.
Some of the greatest figures of American history found the subject of etiquette important enough to offer opinions. Among these were George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. "Reprehend not the imperfections of others," wrote Washington, "for that belongs to Parents, Masters and Superiors. ... Contradict not at every turn what others say. ... Spit not in the fire." He listed one hundred and ten precepts in all, ending with a statement that summed up the moral tone of his time: "Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience."
Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanac expressed his views equally succinctly and with wit: "Love your neighbor, yet don't pull down your hedges. ... Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards. ... None but the well-bred man knows how to confess a fault or acknowledge himself in error. ... Fish and visitors stink in three days."
During the nineteenth century American etiquette books increased rapidly in numbers. Arthur M. Schlesinger reports that during the early decades of the century there was an average of over three new books on manners issued every year, many of them by well known and respected writers of the day.
Among those who wrote on the subject were Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Neither actually wrote a manual of etiquette, but both commented on the fundamental principles of good manners; Mrs. Stowe in two chapters of a book on housekeeping, which she wrote in collaboration with her sister, and Emerson in two essays, on "Manners" and "Behavior."
Mrs. Stowe seemed to feel that a strict adherence to the principles of religious life was the proper road to good manners and behavior. But she also became quite specific about details, cautioning children to be silent at table "unless they be addressed by others," and urging everyone to avoid "all disgusting and personal habits such as fingering the hair, obtrusively using a toothpick or carrying one in the mouth after the needful use of it, cleaning the nails in the presence of others, picking the nose, snuffing instead of using a handkerchief; or ... lifting up the boots or shoes as some men do to tend them on the knee."
Mrs. Stowe also gave her views on general table manners, drinking (she frowned on it), and other particulars of contemporary social conduct.
Emerson, of course, was less concerned with the outward manifestations of the social graces and more with the personal character of man and the underlying philosophical forces that are at the root of social intercourse.
Manners [Emerson wrote] aim to facilitate life, to get rid of impediments, and bring the man pure to energize. They aid our dealings and conversation, as a railway aids travel, by getting rid of all avoidable obstructions in the road, and leaving nothing to be conquered but pure space. These forms very soon become fixed, and a fine sense of propriety is cultivated with more heed, that it becomes a badge of social distinction.
His specific admonitions are few but noteworthy:
Let us not be too much acquainted. ... Absence of heat and haste indicate fine qualities. ... A gentleman makes no noise: a lady is serene. ... The first point of courtesy must always be truth. ... I could better eat with one who did not respect the truth or the laws, than with a sloven and unpresentable person. ... Society will pardon much to genius and special gifts, but being in its nature a convention, it loves what is conventional, or what belongs to coming together. That makes the good and bad of manners, what helps or hinders fellowship. ... The favorites of society are what it calls whole souls, and able men, and of more spirit than wit, who have no uncomfortable egotism, but who exactly fill the hour and the company, contented and contenting, at a marriage or funeral, a ball or a jury, a water party or a shooting match.
Following the Civil War the preoccupation of Americans with etiquette seemed to increase. The rapid growth of huge personal fortunes was building a new social class in the United States, what one writer called "the sham aristocracy," founded on wealth. The manners of the hereditary leisure class of Europe were aped, and many who had not yet made their fortunes yearned for the day when accumulated wealth might allow them to be "gentlemen" and their wives "ladies."
Popular magazines devoted a great deal of space to questions of etiquette, and Beatrice Fairfax and Dorothy Dix in the daily newspaper columns gave advice to the lovelorn and authoritative rulings on etiquette.
The story of whiskers and beards is an interesting example of the way fashions and customs change. From 1865 to 1885 when Grover Cleveland entered the White House every president of the United States was bearded and bewhiskered. Before the end of the smooth-shaven Cleveland's first term, however, a social arbiter announced that the beard was out of fashion. Many a fashionable young man ruefully watched his proudly grown adornment fall under the barber's razor.
As late as the turn of the century, smoking in the presence of ladies was considered improper; it was thought by many that even smoking by men was regrettable. President McKinley felt so strongly about his obligation to set a good example for the youth of the nation that he refused to be photographed with a cigar in his mouth. The social arbiters, ever alert, pointed out that no lady would be seen with a man who was smoking. When the public learned that Alice Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt's oldest daughter, occasionally smoked a cigarette, a gasp of pained astonishment was audible throughout the nation.
World War I and the period that followed it brought a new sense of independence, especially to younger people, and the etiquette experts faced the dilemma of choosing between conduct which had been declared proper in the past and the actual behavior of their contemporaries, most of whom were "nice" people. New etiquette books poured into the market (sixty-eight of them appeared from 1918 to 1929, according to Schlesinger), but in many matters there was a considerable gulf between theory and practice. While the experts struggled to bridge the gulf, their readers were often confused because of the rapid changes and the inconsistencies with which they were faced.
But the American middle class, more prosperous than ever before in history, raised the banner of freedom and self-expression and proceeded quite merrily to make its own rules.
No longer was a lady instructed on how to lift her skirt when she crossed the street. Skirts became so short that the problem was academic. No longer did a gentleman hesitate to smoke a cigarette in front of a lady. Indeed, he was no gentleman if he didn't offer one to his lady companion before lighting up himself. If he favored pipe or cigar, he might casually ask, "Do you mind?" before proceeding. The waltz, considered a dance of "loose character" only a few decades before, had given way to faster tempos, and far more intimate dance styles were developed with a minimum of head shaking and finger wagging.
Several influences tended to free us further from the ritual codes of behavior and to spread new concepts of manners during the years between the end of World War I and today. More and more jobs were filled by women, and the working wife became commonplace rather than an exception. With her achievement of greater economic freedom, a woman expected and took freedom in other matters, including the right to adapt the laws of social usage to her own situation. Women began to regulate their behavior more by common sense and by goodwill.
The far-flung distribution of our young men during and following World War II made it advisable for the United States Government to issue a series of guides for servicemen assigned to foreign countries describing the customs, and cautioning them to have respect for other people's manners and behavior. The realization that others had social customs that differed greatly from our own inevitably led to the conclusion that no social code was universally sacrosanct and implied that this was true for groups within our own country as well.
During these years the new profession of Public Relations made its impact on business and industry. Businessmen were learning all over again that special courtesy paid. There was and is, as might be expected, a certain degree of hypocrisy about the new business courtesy, yet it was founded on realism and practical-common sense. Greater consideration for the point of view of associates and customers made for better working relations (and larger profits) than formal obsequiousness or curtness. So business was influenced by and made its own contribution to the times.
Though the circumstances of life shift rapidly and the acknowledged leaders and arbiters have changed the rules of behavior throughout the ages of man, the fundamental basis of good behavior in kindness and consideration for others has never changed. Whatever the usefulness of any set of social rules, they represent, as Arthur Schlesinger says, "one aspect of the common man's struggle to achieve a larger degree of dignity and self-respect."CHAPTER 2
The Family of Two
THROUGHOUT THE AGES rules for social behavior have evidenced man's desire to live graciously and in harmony with his fellows. As time passes details of the codes change — sometimes because of changing circumstances, sometimes because, having come into being heaven knows how, they have proved themselves to be silly and useless. But the basic principles of kindness, consideration, behaving so that you are making life easier and pleasanter for others, rather than more difficult, remain the same.
If you may imagine a time and a place in which a number of households are supplied by water from a not very good pump that needs priming every time it is used, it will be easy to see how a rule of behavior may have been adopted which dictates that everyone who uses the pump should leave beside it a can filled with water for the next person to use as a primer. It would be a good and useful rule, and anyone who ignored it would rightly earn the censure of the rest of the community. But if one of the householders moves into a modern house equipped with running water, and because of the good rule that had been followed before, insists that everyone leave a can full of water beside the faucet, the custom becomes simply a useless bit of nonsense. Anyone of normal intelligence would abandon it on leaving the community in which it had been dictated by circumstance. But if it was a hot water faucet used by several people and the hot water supply was limited, the person devoted to correct behavior would not use the water wastefully, leaving only cold water for the one who came after him.
Excerpted from Eleanor Roosevelt's Book of Common Sense Etiquette by Eleanor Roosevelt. Copyright © 2016 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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