When do 19th century etiquette rules become obsolete?

I am fascinated by etiquette.

Etiquette to me is an ever-evolving set of timeless rules, which right there, is a reason to be fascinated by it. Etiquette governs a society, but it is the culture that dictates the rules of etiquette. Cryptic enough for ya? Let me tell you what I mean.

In your country, do forks get held in the right hand or the left hand? What about knives? Does this change depending on whether it is the salad course or the main course? What if you come from a culture that uses chopsticks? Are knives even on the table? What if you are used to a knife and fork and you visit a culture that uses chopsticks? Is it acceptable to ask for a fork? (And when using disposable chopsticks, is it acceptable to snap them apart and start rubbing them together like you are sharpening knives after tossing your crumpled chopsticks wrapper into the middle of the table so that everyone can see your rubbish for the entire meal?)

You get my point. Etiquette is not just one rule. It’s a series of rules designed to help the ruling class identify each other as well as a way to make everyone feel at ease by having predictable behaviour.

Something I hear frequently is that etiquette is an old-fashioned notion that should be done away with. The entire thing is so arbitrary and literally no one cares.

Except I do.

I like etiquette. I like knowing what is expected of me. I like knowing that when I am at a seated dinner, I won’t suddenly be faced with flagging down a waiter for new a fork, side plate, and water glass because the people to my left and right cleaned me out due their inexperience with place settings. I like seeing everyone have an enjoyable time, relaxed in an atmosphere that can only be created when everyone agrees to the same social rules.

What I don’t like? Having someone burp, mouth open, at the dinner table.

And then: defend it because “it’s good manners in some countries.” (Wonderful. I’ll miss you terribly. I assume you’ll be moving there?)

Recently I came across a book that intrigued me. How to behave: a pocket manual of republican etiquette, and guide to correct personal habits, embracing an exposition of the principles of good manners; useful hints on the care of the person, eating, drinking, exercise, habits, dress, self-culture, and behavior at home; the etiquette of salutations, introductions, receptions, visits, dinners, evening parties, conversation, letters, presents, weddings, funerals, the street, the church, places of amusement, traveling, etc. Apparently in 1857, when this book was authored, the rules around the length of a title had yet to really be explored.

So here was the only question on my mind: are manners timeless OR as I have heard, is etiquette old-fashioned? Naturally, the answers to everything I wanted to know were right there in a handy pocket manual for… ahem… Republicans. Hopefully the author, Samuel R. Wells, would not be disappointed to hear I am more broad in my beliefs.

For a little context, the American Revolution had ended about seventy-five years before. For those of us in today’s society, that’s about how long ago World War II ended. It is my imagination that then, much like now, the adults running the Republic had been raised by war vets and had grown up hearing stories of bravery on the battlefield. And now they were faced with sending groups of young adults, about the age and attitude of something like our millennials now. Samual R. Wells was likely the Gen X of his time trying to install the values his millennial children would need to run the world.

With that context, I read the book. Well, ok. I read parts of it anyway. It’s 172 somewhat dry pages from a pdf on Open Library. My only real question: are manners outdated?

Interestingly, little has changed. The detailed explanation of when to wear a stovepipe hat may be a bit unhelpful in today’s fashion, but the next bit, a discussion the importance of felted hats in the winter and straw hats in the summer did gave me a reason to pause. I’m not sure why I know this rule. I just do. I know for certain I would not wear a straw hat with my winter coat. I know that even when the temperature is chilly in summer (see also: my experience with Summer 2019 thus far) I still wouldn’t wear a felted hat. So how do I know this? What else does Samuel teach that I have internalized?

He includes an Order of Business for a New York Club. It could read like my own union wrote it on page two of the Constitution. I didn’t internalize my union’s Order of Business. I definitely had to learn it. But I did. And it’s pretty much the same. That’s all high level stuff, though. Most of us don’t need an order of business and will not be bothered by hats in any season.

So what of the every day rules of etiquette? How we treat our servants is unchanged. Treat them nicely as they are people of value. Don’t think you have servants? Well, we don’t in the sense of having personal staff, but if you visit restaurants or store, there is definitely a relationship there that is not equal. If you have assistants or a team, the rules apply.

Timeliness is addressed. You are expected to be on time, or “exact in keeping all appointments,” as Samuel says regarding business appointments. Not early. Not late. Exact. This hasn’t changed. And he adds a caution that when you accept an appointment, you must “make yourself invisible to the rest of the world and consecrate your time solely to him.” Even in the 1800’s, Samual was not in favour of texting others when you were with company.

Etiquette and manners, it seems, have not changed dramatically. But what has changed is our interpretation of them. For the people who believe that etiquette forces us to adhere to rules we didn’t create or that these are old-fashioned notions, I cannot say I agree. The purpose of etiquette is to make a world in which we agree to behavioural rules. Security comes when we know how others can expect to behave in social settings. Respect comes when we model these rules ourselves.

Eschewing the rules of etiquette will not bring about a world with less racism, less frivolous lawsuits, and fewer human rights violations. We will still have all of those things. But what we will also have is more, or less, personal discomfort while we navigate the world around us.