We have been consulting an excellent guide to good manners, Principles of Politeness and of Knowing the World, compiled from the letters of Lord Chesterfield, with comments by the Rev Dr John Trusler in 1775. John Trusler (1735–1820) was an eccentric English divine and literary man, who published copious works on a range of subjects, from history, travel and the English language to etiquette manuals, self-help guides and medical advice on longevity.
This entertaining volume is full of imprecations and recommendations to young men who are entering society. While some of the reverend gentleman’s musings are pompous and old-fashioned, much that he recommends is perfectly sensible advice for both men and women and, surprisingly, is still applicable to modern society and contemporary behaviour.
Here is a sample of what he calls the “sundry little accomplishments” that are the prerequisites of “good breeding”:
• “Pay some attention to your behaviour at the table, where it is exceedingly rude to scratch any part of your body, to spit, or blow your nose, if you can possibly avoid it, to eat greedily, to lean your elbows on the table, to pick your teeth before the dishes are removed, or to leave the table before Grace is said.”
Most of this list of admonishments still holds true today, though it is to be hoped that nobody would think it acceptable to spit at the table. Grace is rarely said these days, but of course – on the occasions when it features – you must bow your head and sit quietly until it is finished.
• “Eating quick, or very slow at meals, is characteristic of the vulgar; the first infers poverty, that you have not had a good meal for some time; the last, if abroad, that you dislike your entertainment.”
While we all have our own natural eating pace, it is certainly polite to try and conform to the general pace of the people around you. Bolting your food will mean you are left idle at the end of the meal with a reproachfully empty plate; eating agonisingly slowly will mean that everyone at the dinner table is waiting for you to finish and you may find yourself the object of unwanted attention.
• “Humming a tune to ourselves, drumming with our fingers on the table, making a noise with our feet, and such like are all breaches of good manners, and indications of our contempt for the persons present; therefore they should not be indulged.”
We might argue that a tendency to jiggle our feet or fidget does not necessarily express contempt for the company we keep, but we would certainly agree that all tics and distractions are extremely irritating, and in many cases will be seen as a troubling sign of nervousness.
• “Pulling out your watch in company unasked, either at home or abroad, is a mark of ill breeding… If at home, it appears as if you were tired of your company, and wish them to be gone; if abroad, as if the hours dragged heavily, and you wished to be gone yourself. If you want to know the time, withdraw.”
While scrutinising a pocket-watch was a very hard gesture to conceal, this advice still holds true today. Whether you are glancing at a wristwatch or quickly consulting your phone, it will still be obvious you are looking at the time, and the people you are with may feel affronted. It’s far better to wait until you can make an excuse – a visit to the bathroom, or taking a few minutes outside for a breath of air.
• “A polite manner of refusing to comply with the solicitations of the company is also very necessary to be learned; for a young man, who seems to have no will of his own, but does everything that is asked of him, may be a very good natured fellow, but he is a very silly one. If you are invited to drink at any man’s house, more than you think it’s wholesome, you may say ‘you wish you could, but that so little makes you both drunk and sick, that you should be only be bad company by doing it’.”
This sensible advice concerns the way in which we can all be led astray, especially when we are prone to accede to all sorts of ill-advised suggestions because we do not want to appear to be uptight or ‘party-poopers’. Tusler’s recommendation is that, by pleading our own risk or susceptibility, we will not cause offence to other people.
• “It were better not to know a diamond from the club, than to become a gambler; but as custom has introduced innocent cardplaying at most friendly meetings it marks the gentleman to handle them genteely, and play them well, I hope you will play only for small sums; should you lose your money, pray lose it with temper; or win, receive your winnings without either elation or greediness.”
While card-playing is no longer a customary practice at most social gatherings, the advice about gambling in still relevant, and may well be applicable if you join a group at a horse-racing event, for example, where it is common practice to have a flutter. It is still vitally important that you conceal your despair or joy (this may be painful for people who are nursing the pain of a loss) and don’t inflict your emotional highs and lows on your friends.
• “To write well and correct, and in a pleasing style, is another part of polite education… Epistolary correspondence should not be carried on in a studied or affected style, but the language should flow from the pen, as naturally and as easily as it would from the mouth. In short, a letter should be penned in the same style as you would talk to your friend if he was present.”
The admonition to write in a clear, conversational style – free from pretentious prose and pompous posturing, was clearly important in an age when the primary means of communicating with friends and family was by letter. In essence, it is still relevant today; it behoves us all to communicate as clearly as possible, whether we are using emails, texting or posting.
• “Be careful never to tell in one company what you see or hear in another; much less to divert the present company at the expense of the last. Things apparently indifferent may, when often repeated and told abroad, have much more serious consequences than imagined. In conversation, there is generally a tacit reliance that what is said will not be repeated; and a man, though not enjoined to secrecy, will be excluded the company, if found to be a tattler.”
This is timeless advice against gossiping. It is pointed out that seemingly trivial tittle-tattle may become much more ominous once it has been churned through the rumour-mill. We are also reminded that people who gossip, no matter how fascinating their friends might find it, are ultimately seen as unreliable scandalmongers, who cannot be trusted with a secret.
• “Some men are vain enough to think they are quite a consequence by alliance, or by an acquaintance with persons of distinguished character or abilities; hence they are eternally talking of their grandfather, Lord such a one; their kinsman, Sir William such a one; or their intimate friend, Doctor such a one, with whom, perhaps, they are scarce acquainted. If they are ever found out, (and that they are sure to be, one time or other) they become ridiculous and contemptible.… A man’s intrinsic merit does not rise from an ennobled alliance, or a reputable acquaintance.”
Name-dropping is just as problematic today as it was in Trusler’s time. It is a crude attempt to gain kudos from someone else’s reputation – as he points out, it is more likely to reveal feelings of social insecurity or to make you look like a sad celebrity-stalker.
• “Never be witty, at the expense of anyone present… you may possibly thus gain the laugh on your side for the present, but it will make the person, perhaps, at whose expense you are merry, your enemy for ever after; and even those who laugh with you, will, on a little reflection, fear you, and probably despise you.”
It is still the case that making fun of people is an easy way to get a laugh from the assembled company, but you can easily stray into dangerous territory, where your target may feel victimised or insulted (of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and some friends actively enjoy teasing each other). Be very careful about humour, as it can be easily misinterpreted – what you think of as light-hearted joshing may come across to other people as inappropriate and over-critical.
• “True politeness consists in making every body happy about you; and as to mortify is to render unhappy it can be nothing but the worst of breeding. Make it a rule, rather to flatter a person’s vanity than otherwise make him, if possible, more in love with himself, and you will be certain to gain his esteem; never tell him any thing he may not like to hear, nor say things that will put him our countenance, but let it be your study on all occasions to please; this will be making friends instead of enemies, and be a means of serving yourself in the end.”
We couldn’t agree more – it is always sensible to err on the side of amiability and kindness, thus ensuring that people enjoy your company and are well-disposed towards you.
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