The etiquette guides of the 18th and 19th century are compendiums of sensible (and somewhat esoteric) advice on all matters related to self-presentation, communication, the relationship between the sexes, social customs and rituals, everyday behaviour and special occasions.
These are still important topics for the etiquette team at Debrett’s and we always enjoy looking through the guides to see what nuggets of historic advice are still applicable in today’s very different world.
We take as our starting point an invaluable list of ‘precepts’, which form part of the appendices to the Rev Dr John Trusler’s popular guide, A System of Etiquette, published in 1805:
Shew in everything a Modesty
Be not always speaking of yourself
Angle not for praise
Be easy in carriage
Listen when spoken to
Be choice in your compliments
Command your temper and countenance
Seem friendly to enemies
Never see an affront if you can help it
Judge not of mankind rashly
Trust not too implicitly in manyDr John Trusler
The ideal of behaviour in 19th-century society was to be gracious and easy-going, a good listener who did not see the need to boast or seek out approbation, who in turn was adept at dispensing compliments and gentle flattery. There was a general recognition that confidence, charm and ease were signs of strength. On the other hand, short tempered, bombastic people who spoke only of themselves and never listened to anyone else were seen as weak because they were unable to conceal their baser instincts – ambition, greed, competitiveness – beneath a civilised veneer.
In the clubs and drawing rooms of 19th-century Britain the emphasis was on always presenting an easy-going and affable exterior – under no circumstances would a gentleman lose his temper, get drawn into an argument, or make his feelings of enmity or contempt obvious. His ‘command’ of his countenance ensured that his facial expressions did not betray his emotions. He was advised to be measured in his judgment of fellow human beings, and to offer congenial companionship. He was, however, warned not to bestow his trust too easily – calculations and judgments about his fellow human beings were well-concealed beneath the bland exterior.
The charming and accommodating façade that was de rigueur in high society not only meant that the wheels of social intercourse ran smoothly, eliminating any unpleasantness, it also ensured that discretion was a highly valued characteristic. People learnt to conceal their true thoughts and feelings and were empowered by doing so. Getting ahead, being successful, climbing to the top of the social ladder were urgent priorities, then as now, but the social ascent was subtle and appeared effortless.
While it is easy to understand that these are charming traits, which would undoubtedly be considered extremely attractive in the social sphere, much of the above appears increasingly difficult to apply in the 21st-century world of work. We live in a fast-moving, dynamic society, which encourages the idea of social mobility. In our working lives, we are prone to self-assertion, convinced that we will not get ahead if we do not push ourselves to the front of the queue and get ourselves noticed. Modesty, or taking a back seat, is seen as an increasingly under-valued characteristic.
But perhaps our historic forebears had a more nuanced approach to self-advancement? Try adopting a 19-century demeanour. Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve or fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. Moderate your emotions and present a calm and collected exterior. Be friendly and attentive to everyone, never make feelings of enmity obvious, and exercise discretion and self-control in all your relationships. You may well find that your popularity rises as your demeanour becomes more civilised, reaping you rich rewards.
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