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Frankness Of Modern Manners

RICHARD GRANT WHITE, who was a man not inclined to mince matters, boldly and calmly asserted that there was no such thing as English grammar! English grammar, in the opinion of this gentleman, was only a sort of old-fashioned myth, invested and kept alive by pedagogues for the torture of unoffending youth of both sexes.

It has occurred to me that if some departed worthy of the last century should again return to this earth and this country, it would strike him that our grammar was well enough, and our spelling really fine; but as regards our manners, would he be apt to observe that we had any in particular? I fear he would not, certainly he would find little to correspond with the manners of his own day. And yet he would be greatly mistaken if he supposed that manners had gone entirely out of fashion, lingering only in remote places in the country, and surviving in the cities merely among a few old-fashioned and conservative people.

The manners of the present day, despite a great deal that is said against them, have a certain merit that is all their own, — the merit of frankness and honesty. Furthermore, they fit the time, and suit the first quarter of the twentieth century much better than if we masqueraded in the courtly and elaborate manners of our grandfathers, who were perhaps a little more sentimental, a little more ideal than we are, and whose ceremonies were not curtailed by the constant necessity of catching trains.

It seems to me that frankness is one of the most striking features of our modern manners. People have grown tired of all the formality, all the ceremony that was once thought necessary to good breeding. The circumlocution office has gone out of fashion in good society, which has discovered that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. Curves, no doubt, are more beautiful than straight lines; but what would you? Curves take time; and what a pity it would be to lose time that might be so much more profitably spent in the sacred business of amusement! We have lost our belief in many things in these days, and among others, in lying, — that is, in polite lying. Whether this is from any access of virtue on our part is more than doubtful. Perhaps it is rather that people just now value the noble art of lying too highly to use it lightly. It is of course needed constantly in business, so why waste it on mere matters of ceremony? Besides, the truth, after all, is more direct, and easier to tell; so, since the polite world has agreed to tell it in many instances, what fashion is easier to follow?

Ceremony is in a great measure humbug; that is to say, it consists largely in saying and doing things one does not mean, and which the other side - knows one does not mean. Take, for instance, the Spanish custom of bestowing any article that is admired, on the person who admires it. It is perhaps a pretty little piece of acting; but would it not be difficult for one of our Northern race to go through this polite humbug without a smile at the farce? Our directness may be brutal, but it-has this advantage, — you know on what ground you are standing.

A good illustration of the greater frankness of manners in this day is, that it is no longer considered necessary to say that you have had a good time, when taking leave of your hostess after a dinner-party or other entertainment.1 What a saving of white lies would have been effected if this simple and self-evident rule had been adopted at the first primeval tea-party!

It is interesting to note that according to Buddhist tradition the first lie was told by a king, and was therefore no doubt a white or society lie. The citizens who heard it were even more innocent than George Washington. He, at least, knew what a lie was, if he didn't know how to tell one; but these poor people were utterly ignorant on the subject, and asked whether a lie was white, black or blue! It is to be feared that the blue lie has disappeared from the face of the earth, unless it survives in that kind of swearing which is said to turn the air blue.

It was the custom, not so many years ago, for a hostess, when bidding adieu to ladies calling upon her, to accompany them as far as the door of the house. This fashion, like so many others involving time and trouble, has gone out of style, though some people still keep it up. As it prolongs the agony of leave-taking indefinitely, and often keeps the hostess standing in the cold of the open doorway, it would seem to be a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance.

But how different was the old-fashioned view of the matter! How well do I remember a most polite old lady in New York, who has now been dead for many years! She always insisted upon opening the door for her visitors, — the door through which she herself had not ventured to pass for twenty years. She was over eighty years of age, and very rheumatic; but she would do what politeness required of her, as long as she could walk.

Another very noticeable change in manners is in the form of address. It is no longer considered necessary, or even the right thing, to say, " Yes, madam," or " Yes, sir." The " Mum " in which Uncle Pumble-chook delighted, is a thing of the past, and with it " ma'am," or " m'm," is also departing from our midst. This is certainly carrying out the Scriptural injunction, Let your communication be yea, yea; nay, nay; " but it is very doubtful whether the change is due to any religious feeling or scruple. No, it is a simple following of the English custom, though it fits well enough, perhaps, with republican simplicity.

In the mouths of children, the simple monosyllables " yes " and " no " certainly sound a little startling when addressed to their elders; but what would you? Autres temps, autres moeurs. It seems a pity to bring children up to use forms of expression that are fast becoming obsolete; and the child who has been taught from its earliest infancy to speak thus, sees no impropriety nor disrespect to age in so doing.

After all, when we look into the matter, " sir " is short for "sire," a title savoring strongly of monarchies, and therefore to be avoided by good democrats, using the word in its broad sense " Madame," French "Ma dame," "my lady," is a hardly more desirable title in these days, when the word " lady " has been so abused that those who perhaps have the best claim to it use it but little, preferring the broader term " woman," and for young lady, " girl."

There is something quite delightful in this abandonment of the much-abused words " lady " and " gentleman" by those to whom, in the old sense, the words exclusively applied. They make no protest against " washer-ladies," or gentlemen who need to be told " not to spit on the cabin floor, out of respect for the ladies; " but with quiet satire they are content to call themselves simply men and women, as the English nobleman signs himself " Argyle " or " Dufferin."

In this country, where all are free and equal, and where our forms of address are so simple and democratic, we do not realize the caste spirit, the degradation and corresponding elevation implied in the use of different persons of the verb in European countries. An Italian — a political refugee in the old troublous times of Italy explained to his pupils with considerable warmth that republicans in Italy repudiated as slavish the old mode of address, namely, the use of the third person singular feminine, lei, or as we should say, " she." He said it meant sa majesta " her majesty " and of course was a really servile mode of address not to be tolerated by freedom-loving republicans. In the same way, in Germany, only servants or inferiors are spoken to in the second person plural. All others are addressed in the third person plural, —" they," — save relatives and intimates, who are called " thou.

Many of the changes in social customs that have taken place in this country, are owing to the great growth of society itself. Formerly, when the country was comparatively small, and people of good breeding comparatively rare, society, so called, was very much smaller than it is now, and the relations of those be-longing to it were necessarily more personal, even if more formal. The hostess felt more responsibility for the entertainment of her guests, and took more pains to see that they were amused and comfortable, than it is now customary to take. The lady of the house was temporarily a social queen, and her guests were her subjects; now a party or .a ball is simply a republic where all are equal, at least, where the fact of being hostess gives little title to distinction or prominence.

As a logical result of these new theories the uncomfortable custom of pressing your guests to eat, has been happily relegated to past ages. It is assumed, and very properly, that a guest is not, or ought not to be, afraid to eat as much as he wants; so while everything should be offered to him, he should not be urged to eat this, that or the other.

This idea of the propriety of pressing guests to eat or drink, evidently had its origin in a more primitive state of society, and in times when social gatherings were not so numerous as now. The regular society habitu้ of these days goes too constantly into the gay world, to stand in the slightest awe of his hostess, or of any one else, and is quite to be trusted to look after his own interests.

Another custom in which we have improved on the ways of our forefathers is that of allowing each person to pay for himself, whether in public conveyances, or at the theatre and other places of amusement. Of course this does not apply to formal opera or theatre parties, where the invitations all come from one person, who buys and pays for all the tickets himself. But the theory that a lady is never to be allowed to pay anything for herself, even in a trolley-car, is obsolescent, if not obsolete. A gentleman should certainly offer to pay for a lady on such occasions, but he should not insist upon doing so. If she evidently prefers to pay her own way, she should be allowed that privilege, without a prolonged discussion. It is no longer good form for two people to vie with each other in politeness.

Still another evidence of the greater frankness and directness of modern society, of the fact that matters are placed more nearly on a business footing now than formerly, is to be found in the change in methods of shopping. No one now has the time or the inclination to haggle over prices when on a shopping tour; nor would it be of any use, in most cases, to do so. And yet, in the times of our mothers and grandmothers, cheapening was a necessary part of the art of purchasing.

Doubtless it still prevails in the wholesale business; but let us rejoice that in ordinary shopping, at least, we no longer need to fight these wordy and long-winded battles where one party or the other surrenders from sheer exhaustion.

There are some people who still persist in trying to cut down every bill that is rendered to them; but it is to be more than suspected that their tradespeople soon come to understand this little weakness, and make the accounts out to meet it.

( Originally Published 1911 )

Social Customs:
Early Origin Of Manners

Permanent And Transient Institutions In Society

Uses Of Society

Frankness Of Modern Manners

Visiting Cards And Their Uses

Invitations

Dinners, And How To Give Them

Dinners - Service And Arrangements Of The Table

Etiquette Of The Table

Family Dinner Table - Its Furniture And Equipment

Read More Articles About: Social Customs



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