Hints For Young Men Washington Customs
IT has been said that the aim of education should be to teach a person how to study. The young man who graduates from college has still no doubt much to learn, but the key of future knowledge has been put into his hand. He knows where to look for information on various points; he has been placed on the right road, and it will be his own fault if he does not keep to it. Herein he has a great advantage over the self educated man, who wanders blindly and without compass over vast fields of (to him) unclassified information. It is wonderful what we can all find in books, pictures, or the face of Nature, when we have once learned what to look for. The diver, cannot find the pearl unless he knows where the oyster lies.
It is with this hope — the hope that I may have been able to place the reader on the right track, to turn his face in the right direction — that I now prepare to bring this little volume to a close. No one ever learned the art of dancing, swimming, or fencing, or the secret of a courtly and polished manner, from the study of books alone. These can give but the theory, and practice must be added to theory to make it perfect. Carlyle points out, in a very striking passage, that in every art and trade there is much that has never been and never will be written down, but is transmitted from one generation of artists and mechanics to another, a visible tradition, if I may be allowed the expression. Thus a lost art or trade can never in the nature of things be resuscitated, though it is sometimes rediscovered.
An additional difficulty in the way of fixing upon paper the open secret of what constitutes good manners is, that our manners, like our language, are constantly undergoing changes. The spirit alone of true courtesy remains always the same, and he who builds the edifice of his behavior on this foundation builds on a rock.
What are the qualifications that best fit a person for making himself agreeable in society? Are they not tact, wit and good spirits? The most important of these — and perhaps the rarest — is tact. The man of tact is not of necessity false and insincere, although very downright people like to call him so. Say rather he is a person who possesses an infinite power of silence, a ready steersman, who can always dexterously change the helm of conversation when rocks or shoals are near. He can know or divine what are the skeletons in the closets of a whole roomful of people, and yet not once mention these disagreeable subjects, nor allow others to mention them if he can help it. This is his passive or negative virtue. His active and positive one is the knowledge that he possesses of what is agreeable to each individual, as well as of what gratifies the world at large. He talks, or better still, he listens to each man on the subject of which that man loves most to discourse. Tact means literally the act of touching. A person who possesses true tact may be said to resemble one of those radiates which have a thousand sensitive tentacles or feelers. By their help his mind comes in contact with the minds of his neighbors at an infinite number of points; but the contact is one of sympathy, and is never a violent collision. Ready sympathy is a very necessary element of tact, but it is not the only one. Sympathy without intellectual acuteness leads people into frightful blunders. Thus the sympathetic woman will often read, by a sort of semi-mesmeric power, what is passing in the mind of her interlocutor; but the latter may be dwelling on some subject that is very painful to him, and if the sympathetic woman be lacking in intelligence, she will be very apt to introduce this painful theme into the conversation, always with the best intentions. Absent-minded people are guilty of the same mistakes, and are often celebrated for their inadvertencies of this sort. Thus if an absentminded man is talking to a person who has been insane, insanity will be vaguely suggested to his mind; and forgetting the exact facts of the case he will talk about crazy people, remembering, when it is too late, the unkindness of which he has apparently been guilty.
The man who is witty — and wise as well — is always a favorite in society. But his wisdom must teach him not to be egotistical, and not to weary the company with too many smart sayings. Finally, the person who has good spirits possesses that which all the world wants, and which every man may borrow from him without impoverishing the lender. He is like the sun; every one draws near him for warmth and cheer. One of the greatest charms of youth is its gay good-nature, the brilliant spirits which result from vigorous animal life and health, and from ignorance of the world and its evils. From a blasé young man or woman every one prays to be delivered!
Brains, provided they be not too heavy, are always at a premium in society. It is therefore very desirable for young people to cultivate any talent they may possess for reading aloud, reciting, or amusing their friends in any way. If a young man has a thorough knowledge of any one subject, and can talk about it clearly, intelligently, and in an interesting manner, he will find himself much more popular in society than the man who can do nothing for its instruction or amusement. But the cultivated man must strenuously avoid the temptation to display his talent continually; he must be ready to do his part whenever he is called upon, but not otherwise.
The same thing is true of the person who can tell amusing stories, of the woman who can act, perform fancy dances, play on the mandolin, the guitar, or the piano, or do some other pleasant thing.
The line which divides the most charming person in the world from the greatest bore is of a hair's width, - like the celebrated step which separates the sublime from the ridiculous. It is a gift of the gods to know when to stop; and in the intoxication of success many people go far beyond the proper limit, when lo! their popularity vanishes like a dream.
There is another very important qualification for making one's self agreeable in society, and that is the willingness to be generally useful. The obliging man or woman- especially if he or she have plenty of time at command — is found to be indispensable. But such a person, while secretly wielding great power, must beware of openly assuming social authority. The power behind the throne must remain ever in the shadow. If the man who holds it tries to sit upon the throne, he is sure to be thrown off.
If the greater portion of this volume — as of most' books of the kind — is devoted to the consideration of the social duties of women rather than of men, it is not because the former stand more in need of instruction than the latter. Is it not rather that women are willing to give more thought to these subjects, and take a greater and more vital interest in them? Howells's immortal saying, that " after two thousand years man is imperfectly monogamous " (I quote from memory), might have had as an addition that he is imperfectly civilized as well. Woman's intellectual standing as compared with that of man may admit of dispute; but her position in civilization is certainly far ahead of his. Take a small community in our far West, where there are no women, and you will find the most highly civilized men relapsing into barbarism.
Even in our own part of the world young men are often found to be lacking in politeness, and in that deference toward their elders and toward women which is so becoming in a manly young fellow. To such an one the writer would like to offer a few words of advice in a friendly spirit.
He will find detailed instructions in the chapters on visits, invitations, manners in public places, dinners and elsewhere in this volume.
To deserve the " grand old name of gentleman," a man must behave like one, at all times and in all companies. It does not suffice to be scrupulously courteous in the ball-room and then to be rude or arrogant in the street or in a place of business. A man who is truly chivalrous treats all women, the poor, old and unattractive, as well as the young, rich and beautiful, with courtesy and respect. He will not listen to nor circulate gossip and slander about them, since this would be not only ungentlemanly but unmanly. He will remember that a gentleman does not talk about ladies, at his club. He will be careful not to pay marked attentions to a woman, especially if she is a young girl, unless he cares seriously for her. He will only send her the presents which custom permits namely, flowers, candy, fruit Or a book. Only a cad boasts of his flirtations or shows letters received from a woman.
While it is a mistake to think too much about out-ward shows and conventions, it is necessary to pay a certain amount of attention to appearances. A man who is careless in his dress, who is addicted to much swearing, who talks bad grammar or walks with a swagger, may seem attractive or even heroic in fiction, but in real life in the twentieth century, we find him uncouth and crude. One may be thoroughly manly, and yet thoroughly refined. The polished diamond is as hard as the rough stone. To be able to express oneself clearly and courteously in writing, is a part of good breeding. Every young man should learn to write a polite note as well as a civil letter of business.
A gentleman must remember the importance of punctuality and exactness, in little matters. If he borrows books or small sums of money, he should be careful to return them. People dislike asking for the return of small loans, hence one should feel in honor bound to repay them. A gentleman should answer all invitations promptly and carefully, within twenty-four hours if he is asked to a dinner, luncheon, theatre-party or any occasion where the host needs to know in good season how many persons to expect. He should keep his engagements and arrive punctually at a dinner or luncheon, for instance. To keep a lady waiting is very ill-bred. If he is unavoidably detained at the last moment, he should telephone or telegraph.
He should call promptly after all invitations, wherever this is possible, or at least send cards. He must be punctilious in writing a bread-and-butler letter within a few days after a weekend or other visit. A gentleman should always endeavor to make some return for hospitality received or offered. If he is a dancing man, he should dance with the daughters whose mothers have invited him. A bachelor of small means is not always able to entertain his friends, but he can show his sense of obligation in other ways. A bunch of flowers, like charity, covers a multitude of sins of omission, and a box of candy is appreciated by all young women and by some old ones. It is not necessary to go to great expense. We must not take a commercial view of social kindnesses and imagine that they must be repaid by others of equal financial value. This would be both sordid and vulgar. But we should endeavor to make such return as lies in our power; otherwise we seem ungrateful and lacking in appreciation.
Deference to elders is a primitive virtue which will never go wholly out of fashion, though it sometimes suffers temporary eclipse. If young people knew how becoming a respectful manner is to them, they would be more ready to assume it. Older men usually dislike very much to have their juniors treat them with over-familiarity. They do not like to have the latter assume a free-and-easy manner and unconventional attitudes in their presence. The young man who puts up his feet, lounges or slouches in a business interview, for instance, will be apt to offend his elders.
A gentleman should always rise from his chair when a lady enters or leaves the room, and should not return to it until she has taken a seat or passed out, as the case may be. In the latter instance, he should open the door for her; in the former, he should bring a chair rather than suffer her to lift- one for herself. The man who will allow a lady to carry a chair from one part of the room to another, without offering to assist her, is wanting in good-breeding. Very punctilious men always rise whenever a lady rises, and remain standing until she resumes her seat. When a gentleman is making a call, he rises, on the entrance of other callers.
Gentlemen should avoid making very long or very late evening calls, which exhaust the patience of their entertainers. Many young men are voted bores because they make visits of two hours' length; whereas if they remained only half an hour or an hour, they would be considered as decidedly agreeable per-sons.
No doubt one reason for these interminable calls is that many men do not know how to get out of a room, and postpone the hour of departure because they dread it so much. When they rise to take their leave, they are easily persuaded to sit down again, although perhaps the invitation to do so is merely given by the hostess as a matter of form.
"Stand not upon the order of your going,
A lingering leave-taking is wearisome to host and guest alike; nor is it polite to the hostess, since she may feel compelled to stand until the caller has left the room. When a gentleman takes his leave after making a call on several ladies, it suffices for him to make a decided bow to the lady of the ,house, with slighter inclinations to the other members of the family. Some men make a sort of final and general salutation as they pass out at the door of the room; but this custom does not prevail generally in America.
The custom of making evening calls is rapidly going out of fashion, except in the ease of intimate friends. Young men now call in the late afternoon, after an invitation to dinner for instance, and make a visit of twenty minutes or half an hour in length. This change of hours is due in part to the imitation of English customs, and in part to the present fashion of dining late, which gives gentlemen an opportunity to make calls after business hours, and before the seven or eight o'clock dinner now so much in vogue.
A gentleman should never allow a lady to sit back-wards in a carriage, but should himself take the seat the back of which is turned toward the horses, where it is necessary for some one to do so. Indeed a courteous man will take this seat, when driving with a lady who is not a near relation, in order to give her more room. She may then, if she please, ask him to sit beside her. In the same way a young lady should not permit an older or a married lady to ride backwards. According to strict etiquette, the lady who owns the carriage keeps her own seat; but she will usually surrender it to a married lady if she is herself unmarried, or to one who is much her senior.
As it makes some people positively ill to ride back-wards, those who can do so without inconvenience or suffering should offer to take these undesirable places. A hostess enters the carriage after her guests, unless they are much younger than she is.
A gentleman should always get out of a carriage before the ladies do, taking care not to pass in front of them, but to step out by the door which is nearest to his seat. He should then help the ladies to get out, each in her turn. There are several ways of doing this, a lady requiring more or less assistance according to the height of the vehicle, her own age and activity. Perhaps the most approved way is where a gentleman offers his arm, the lady placing her hand upon it. He can then lend her additional assistance, if it is necessary, by supporting her elbow or forearm with his hand. At the same time he guards her dress from the wheel by holding his cane or umbrella in front of it, with his left hand.
Another method is for a gentleman to offer a lady one or both hands; or if she is descending from a very high vehicle, she may place both hands upon his shoulders, as he is thus enabled to support her arms. When a lady ascends a tally-ho coach, she goes first, a gentleman mounting the ladder one or two steps behind her and keeping her dress in place with his cane. In descending, he goes first, for the same reason, both of them coming down backward. The companion-ways on board ship are mounted and descended in the same manner.
The art of mounting a lady properly on horseback is one that many gentlemen do not understand. The lady should place her left foot in one or both of the gentleman's hands, her left hand ont his shoulder, and her right hand on the pommel of the saddle. Then at a given word she springs upward, the gentleman at the same moment raising his hand so as to assist but not actually to lift her into the saddle. When accompanying a lady on horseback, a gentleman always keeps on the right side.
In dancing, he should offer his hand gracefully to a lady, where he has occasion to do so at all. The hand should be presented palm -downward, taking care that the thumb does not project in an ugly way. To hold the hand vertically, with the thumb sticking up in the air, looks extremely awkward. A gentleman should also be careful not to shake hands with too much violence, and not to press a lady's hand so that her rings will hurt her fingers. Per contra, ladies should not shake hands as if those members were paralyzed or hopelessly limp; and if they should have occasion to take a gentleman's arm - in the evening or in some crowded street- they need not be afraid to lean some of their weight upon it. Most men rather enjoy the sense of protecting the weaker sex, and admire a woman who knows how to take an arm properly.
A gentleman should always offer to pass up a lady's fare in a stage or in a street-car where there is no conductor, and should get off the steps of a car rather than allow a lady to be uncomfortably crowded as she enters or leaves it. Arid just here it is pleasant to be able to say that many of our countrymen in what might be called the humbler ranks of life offer these civilities in a way that is gratifying to see, and that reflects much credit upon them. A man who is escorting a lady, allows her to enter a trolley-car or stage first, assisting her to do so. When leaving it, he gets out first, and offers her his hand to help her down.
It has been said elsewhere that the custom of saying Madam and Sir is falling into disuse. There are still some occasions, however, when it is necessary to use these expressions; notably, when one addresses a stranger. If a gentleman offer to bring a lady any refreshment at an entertainment, to hand up her fare in a street-car, or to call her attention to a parcel that she has left behind, he should in these and similar cases address her as Madam, and never as Miss, even though he may know that she is unmarried. A lady responding to any civility which may have been courteously offered to her by a stranger, uses " Sir" in speaking to him. But neither party should continue the Conversation, for obvious reasons. Elderly ladies, whose experience of the world has given them knowledge of men and things, sometimes converse with their fellow-travellers, especially on long railroad journeys; but it is very undesirable and unsafe for a young woman to do so.
Greediness at the supper-table is an 'unpleasant thing to see in any place. Gentlemen should remember never to stand around it in such a way as to bar the approach of others, and never to take more than their, fair share of the good things spread before them, notably wine. A gentleman may take a bottle of wine and fill the glasses of the ladies of his party, as well as his own. He should then replace the bottle on the table, and not keep it under his arm nor hide it away from other people.
In conclusion, the writer would say that no young man should despair of social success because he does not speedily achieve it. It is no uncommon thing to see a young man much laughed at for his awkwardness or his ungainly figure when he first enters society; and then to see the same youth, by pluck, perseverance and practice, become a fine dancer, an agreeable partner, and a leader of fashion. Women admire courage; and the man who perseveres in spite of defeat is pretty sure to win favor in their eyes.
The etiquette of Washington differs from that of other American cities; it is customary there for strangers to call first upon the members of the Government and on the wives of official personages. For this purpose receptions are held almost every afternoon, and a special day is set apart for each branch of the Government. Thus, Monday is the day of the Judges and the residents of Capitol Hill. On that afternoon the Justices of the Supreme Court remain at home and receive callers, assisted by the ladies of their families. Tuesday is the reception-day of members of the House of Representatives; Wednesday, of the Vice-President and the Cabinet officers; Thursday, of the Senators; Friday and Saturday of the residents of Washington.
There was formerly a public reception-day at the White House, but this was given up more than a dozen years ago. The crowds became so great as to prove too much for the strength of the President's wife. Sight-seers are allowed to see certain rooms of the Executive Mansion, at fixed hours. It is always proper to hand one's visiting-card to the official at the door, without asking to see the lady of the White House. Indeed it is expected that residents of Washington and persons staying for any length of time there, will thus pay their respects to the wife of the President, without expectation of being admitted, however. If one wishes to see this lady, one should after leaving one's card write to Mrs. Taft's secretary, asking if this can be arranged.
Gentlemen desiring to see the President should write to his secretary or apply to a member of Congress from their own State. The New Year's reception at the White House is open to the public, although ladies do not attend it so much as formerly, owing to the crowds, doubtless. In the course of the season there are several public receptions in the evening, admission to which is by card. The list of guests is made up in a measure from that of the callers at the White House.
Should a visitor to Washington desire to attend one of these affairs, he or she would leave cards at the White House, and then apply to the President's secretary for an invitation, or ask a friend to do so.
The great growth of our country has made it im possible to carry out the old theory, in accordance with which any and every citizen of the United States could call upon the President, at hispublic receptions.
Many persons hold that this theory applies ,to other government officials and especially to the Vice-President and the Secretaries of the various departments. Hence the wives of our public servants throw open their houses to visitors on one day of each week during the season, and many people think that any person who chooses, has a right to attend these informal receptions. According to Washington etiquette all these calls must be promptly returned; as their number and frequency are very great, they make the social duties of an official hostess extremely burdensome.1 It should be said, however, that there is a difference of opinion, with regard to the obligations of the wives of the Cabinet officers. They rebelled at one time against this slavery to the travelling public (for it is nothing else), and caused it to be known that they would not undertake to return calls personally, but that their cards would be sent instead. This course, however, gave rise to some bitterness of feeling among those who did not under-stand the exigencies of the situation, and who felt themselves insulted, forgetting that a public servant and his wife ought not to be made public slaves. The wife of one of our recent Secretaries of State is said to have seriously injured her health by her punctiliousness in returning all visits. As our country is increasing in population with such rapidity, and as the throng of
visitors in Washington is in consequence growing constantly greater, it would seem as if some remedy must be found for this growing evil, and as if the protest of the Cabinet ladies were entirely reasonable.
When the society in Washington was comparatively small, and the strangers who came to the city in the gay season comparatively few, all was very different; but matters have changed very much at our National Capital in recent years. Transient visitors and excursionists now visit it in enormous numbers, and intrude themselves in houses where they have no right to go at all in some instances, and in others only on certain days of the week.
It would seem as if common-sense ought to teach people that to a card reception (that is, where the guests are all invited by card) no one save those specially invited would have a right to go but the Washington tourist is very unreflecting. His rule of conduct too often resembles that of the Irishman, where you see a head, hit it. Where the Washington tourist sees a number of carriages standing before the door of a mansion, he immediately enters thereat; and whether he is one, or whether he is two hundred, makes absolutely no difference in his view of the situation. The result of his theories is naturally disastrous. No private house can hold an unlimited number of people; and where the uninvited throng in such numbers, the invited guests are unable to gain admission. A Washington lady received cards for a reception to be given by an official person. It was a little late when she started, and upon her arrival in Avenue she found a surging throng of people in and around the doorway of the house where the reception was to be held. After striving with the crowd for an hour or more, and reaching only the vestibule of the mansion, she and her escort gave up the attempt to gain further admittance, and went home without& having been to the party at all! It transpired afterward that an excursion of two hundred people had arrived in Washington on that day, and had attended Mr. —'s reception en masse !
Thus it is evident that the public abuses its privileges, and if less democratic customs should be adopted, the people themselves would be to blame. All public libraries and parks are conducted on the theory that the public will respect their own possessions; the moment that they cease to do so, that they begin to abuse the books or deface the beauty of the grass and trees, the free system becomes impossible. It is the same with the freedom of entrance in Washington society. It can only continue while the public are upon honor, and behave like ladies and gentlemen.
No doubt the tourists are less to blame in regard to their conduct in Washington than might at first sight be supposed. Being strangers in the land, they naturally believe whatever is told them, forgetting that hotel-keepers, agents for excursions, hack-drivers, and others may, through interested motives, offer them more opportunities of sight-seeing and visiting than these have a legitimate right to do. It is to be feared also that mankind have a tendency to be less careful about their behavior when they are in foreign lands than they would be in their native place, where habit, and the desire to appear well in the eyes of their fellow-townsmen, act as restraining influences. One should always remember that travelling is the severest test of good-breeding; the man who does not forget his politeness among strangers, people whom he never expects to see again, will not be likely to forget it anywhere. It is a dangerous matter, too, to imagine that one's behavior in another city or country will not be known at home. This world is a very small place; we are liable, even on the most lonely mountain-top, to be seen by an acquaintance, or the acquaintance of an acquaintance; and by some mysterious process of social telegraphy our misdemeanors, if we commit any, reach home as soon as we do, usually increased by kind and friendly report to twice their natural size.
It is often said that according to Washington etiquette strangers call first upon the residents of the city. This is only partially true. While it is usually held to be proper for American citizens to call upon members of the Government and their families, as has been stated above, it is questionable whether they have a right to visit private individuals whom they do not know, and with whom they have no bond of common acquaintanceship. It is often done without peradventure; but people who have delicacy of feeling will not intrude themselves on those who move in a different social circle, and who have no reason to wish to know them. Visits-made in this haphazard way are' not always returned; if they were, every private citizen would be completely at the mercy of every transient visitor to the National Capital.
In official life, the first call is always made by the person of lower rank. Among those of the same grade, the newcomer pays the first visit, since he is outranked by those whose service is longer than his own.
In the diplomatic circle, foreign ambassadors call first upon the President and Vice-President, but receive the first visit from other American officials. Foreign ministers call upon the Supreme Court Justices, on the Cabinet, Senate, Speaker of the House. The secretaries and attachés call everywhere.
Whatever claim we may have on the officials of our own Government, we have none on the representatives of foreign countries. Hence we should not call upon the latter unless we have already made their acquaintance, or have some special reason for supposing that this will be agreeable to them. To attend the reception of a diplomat, to which one has not been invited, is never permissible.
( Originally Published 1911 )
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