Although I’m not sure I want to reveal this to the world, I read etiquette books for entertainment. I have a collection of them, the earliest published in in the 1870s, the latest Miss Manners‘ new revision published in 2005. This is part of my interest in history, because etiquette books help me understand now just how people actually behaved, but how they thought they should behave. And sometimes, these old books give some form of insight into why. Furthermore, reading a series of such books over time lets us know the human behaviors that have actually changed, and those that haven’t.
If books about the proper use of forks, leaving of cards, and methods of introductions seem a strange source for any such insights, I can only suggest you try reading them. Just as laws prohibiting something (running red lights, for example) are only promulgated if a lot of people are doing the prohibited action, rules of etiquette behave the same way. An etiquette book will only write that is is rude or boorish to use the tablecloth as a handkerchief if people are using tablecloths to wipe their noses (which is a really disgusting thought, isn’t it?). And today’s etiquette books don’t even mention using the tablecloth in such a fashion because apparently the shame of it all finally changed the behavior.
On the other hand, every etiquette book I’ve ever read has long, long, long treatises on training children into the civilized pretence that they’re grateful you came to their birthday party, and that the present is a surprise and delighted in not because it’s the latest toy but because it was so thoughtfully given. Apparently, human nature is not going to change that fundamentally.
Historically, the role of etiquette in human life apparently has been twofold: the first, to make it possible for humans to live in social groups without decimating each other; and the second, to help us in the task of arranging our societies hierarchically (that is, to know who is on the same level as we are and to keep the arrivistes out). But even more basic than that, humans do not have a built-in set of instincts or hard-wired behaviors to help us live in groups, such as gazelles do, or dogs or even gorillas. Moreover, we live in social groups much larger and more complicated than our DNA was designed to handle. Even now, it is noticeably difficult for anthropologists to determine whatever social behaviors come “naturally” to humans, even those living in small groups. So laws are necessary for us, and religious and moral systems, and etiquette. All civilizations have systems of etiquette, just as they do laws and religions, and all are designed to, well, control human behavior.
So let’s look at the two reasons given above for the use of etiquette in our lives. The first makes rules from the simplest (when walking up or downstairs, keep to the right) to the most complex (one leaves one of your own calling cards and two of your husband’s when making morning calls) in order to make living in groups of people larger than one’s family, well, easier. If we all more or less keep to the right when climbing or descending stairs, we get to the subway platform faster (which allows us more time to wait for the subway, but no system is perfect). The calling card issue, while out of date in today’s world, and too complex even when it wasn’t out of date, does have a logical basis. Married women (with their marriageable daughters) made the “morning” calls (always made in the afternoon). They left one of their own cards, sometimes if they had a daughter with her name penciled on it, for the lady of the house to keep, they left one of their husband’s cards (it was assumed he had far more interesting (or at least less boring) things to do with his time than make morning calls) for the lady of the house, and one of their husband’s cards for the gentleman of the house (it was considered rude for a lady to leave a card for a gentleman for obvious but never overtly mentioned reasons that the only possible relationship between a lady and a gentleman not of her own family was, ahem, romantic). Thus, the husband was taking part in social life without being bothered (which was what he probably had in mind) and all the recipients had bits of pasteboard with names and addresses on them from which to make up their invitation lists.
All of this sounds so arcane and ridiculous to us, doesn’t it? But it has its present day analogues. Morning calls became incredibly elaborate, but their original function was to stay in touch with those one wanted to remain friends with, become friends with, or social climb to be friends with. Today, we use Facebook, Twitter, email, texting, even the incredibly outdated telephone call, to do the same thing. All this kind of technology we use in our iPhones, iPads and computers today was first created in order to facilitate and ease the human need to stay connected with friends, acquaintances, and whatnot. It is hard to even imagine today how isolated a family would be in its own house before the invention of the telephone. What other way then getting out of one’s own house, walking or riding or taking a cart or coach to somebody else’s house and then physically “calling” upon them would there be to maintain one’s friendships before the telephone? When “calling” first started, even writing a letter was a major issue (some very fine people couldn’t write, some postal systems were dreadful, and postage costs were very high–in eras when a penny bought a loaf of bread, to send a letter cost a penny or more). And, by the way, it was called a “morning” call because until the 1820s or so, “morning” was all day from arising until dinner–people didn’t usually eat lunch, and “afternoon” as a concept didn’t really get started until the 19th Century. (This is reflected even in our Bible, where in Genesis the narrator says “and the evening and the morning made the first day.”
I’ve gotten off track. My point (and, to quote Ellen DeGeneres, I do have one) is that, however simple or elaborate, however common-sensical or ridiculous, the system of etiquette in general and most of its rules in particular are designed to both ease and codify the way we humans behave in groups. Etiquette is designed to supplement law and morality and to handle those small items of human contact that don’t rise to thou shalt not kill. Rather, they remain on the level of one just simply does not spit on the sidewalk. (This, by the way, is a rule that I wish was more honored in the observance than the breach.)
The second use of etiquette is or can be considerably less benign. Humans, no matter how right or wrong each considers the concept, live in hierarchies. Even in the most liberal and free of countries, there are hierarchies, some more or less codified, some simply feeling “natural.” The hierarchies in some countries seem cruelly limiting and immovable to our eyes, those in others may seem so nearly invisible that the country approaches anarchy, but they are always there except in the simplest hunter-gatherer groups (where the principle of hierarchy is anathema and any attempts by any tribe member to behave exceptionally in order to get exceptional treatment is shamed). Part of this makes sense, as it did to Samuel Johnson, who said (testily, as he said most things) that the idea that the highest ranking person went through a door first was not snobbish but merely practical, designed to get the show on the road (that is a very loose paraphrase of what he said, by the way). He does has a point. Although I would say most of us in the United States would not agree with it in principle, there does need to be an order to things. In the past, in terms of etiquette, the order was often from the top down. What made it unfair to our eyes was that the people who did the ordering were almost always those sitting at the top or at least those who could convince others they were sitting at the top. Usually this was not done, at least originally, in any mannerly fashion but by simple force of arms. After that, of course, the hierarchy was ordained by God and that was all there was to it. Many of us in the modern era find this rather suspicious, especially given the words of our several religious heritages, most of which state that the humble are quite as important as the, well, important.
Be that as it may, humans were never very good at accepting the idea of a hierarchy unless that human was at the top or could reach it, and so etiquette began to perform a double function. First, the people on top elaborated their etiquette, as they elaborated their clothes, to distinguish themselves from the upstarts crowding in on them from underneath. Second, the people underneath (those upstarts) began to copy the manners they perceived in their supposed social betters so they were less distinguishable from the ones on top. This became quite a race starting in the late Middle Ages when trade and the creation of wealth from other means than plunder got started again. Its most amusing and appalling recrudescence from our point of view is probably that of sumptuary laws, which defined what each segment of society could actually wear. Believe me, this was not much of an issue in the Dark Ages, because nobody had good-looking clothes. But once it was possible to import fine wool or even silk, it became a major THING. There were even laws in Parliament distinguishing what a middle-class tradesman’s wife could wear (boring black and dark colors with high necks and long sleeves) and what the Earl could wear (silks, velvets, ermine, furs, jewels). This might seem to some to be as limiting for the Earl as for the tradesman’s wife, but it probably was more galling to the latter than the former, especially when the tradesman became the chief of his guild and had more money than the Earl down county whose castle was falling down.
Why were clothes so important? Because how else do you determine if somebody is SOMEBODY or just folks? As Russell Crowe expounded in a recent movie “Robin Hood”, what is the difference between a knight and one of his men-at-arms? Well, primarily the horse, because nobody but knights could afford them, but also the fact that the knight wore chain mail and tunics in the colors of his heraldry, while the man-at-arms wore coarsest wool in dark colors. So anybody, whether low or high on the hierarchy, could tell literally at a glance who was who and who was where simply by what they were wearing. (This seems really odd to us because except at weddings and suchlike, most of us wear jeans and t-shirts (or would like to, even when we can’t), no matter what rung of the social ladder we’re clinging to at the moment.)
Oddly enough, this has repercussions to this day. Certain professions have uniforms, sometimes explicitly so, sometimes simply an unwritten compact. Beat cops and traffic patrolmen wear uniforms, as do all members of the military on duty. So do janitors, usually, and doctors and nurses. Laboratory technicians wear lab coats, insignia of their profession, while supreme court justices and district judges wear judicial robes, insignia of theirs. The members of church choirs wear robes, too, their uniform. And we all know a lawyer or accountant when we see one, because they always dress (whatever their gender) in business suits. There are many reasons for uniforms, but they all are based in the simple problem of recognition of a professional or social group by those not members of that group (or even by other members of the group). Doctors wear scrubs because their own clothes are less sanitary or at least less easy to keep sanitary, but the scrubs are relatively uniform in appearance so we can all tell when we’re in the emergency room which is the woman who’s actually going to stop the bleeding. Some uniforms become amazingly complex and dazzling (look at the picture of a general in the Marine Corps one day and you’ll see what I mean), while others stay simple or become more simple through time (those judicial robes are the descendants in spirit of the elaborate churchly or noble robes of the Renaissance). I suppose there could be a rather sniffy moral to be drawn at which uniforms get fancier and which don’t, but I’m reaching the end of this essay and I’d rather not be sniffy anyway.
Again, uniforms and sumptuary laws are an example of the use of etiquette as a means of organizing society vertically, as it were, just as rules like not touching the water fountain with your mouth help to organize social groups horizontally to make life simpler, easier, more elegant and more pleasant for everybody in an equal way. Etiquette has gotten a bad name over the centuries for the vertical organization, because it is basically not fair or equal. Unfortunately, for many of us, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water and decided all etiquette was wrong or limiting or constricting because some etiquette has been used to exclude. Which results in a lot of spitting on the sidewalk, attempting to go up stairs which are filled side to side with people descending them, making ascent impossible, and such outrageous situations as no more morning calls.