“You desire to be a person of ‘good standing’ in society. How do you stand?... If you are awkward, you are more likely to manifest your awkwardness in standing and walking. Do you know where to put your feet and what to do with your hands?”
This perennial question is posed in one of our favourite guides to etiquette, How to Behave: A Pocket Manual of Etiquette and Guide to Correct Personal Habits, 1865 (price sixpence).
The anonymous author goes on:
“It seems a simple and easy thing to walk, and a still easier and simpler thing to stand or sit, but not one in twenty performs either of these acts with ease and grace. There are a hundred little things connected with attitude, movement, the carriage of the arms, the position of the feet and the like, which, though seemingly unimportant, are really essential to elegance and ease. Never despise these little things, or be ashamed to acquire the smallest grace by study and practice…
Avoid, on the one hand, the stiffness of the soldier, and on the other, the ape-like suppleness of the dancing master; and let there be no straining, no fidgeting, no easy shifting of position... The same general principles apply to the sitting posture. This may be either graceful, dignified, and elegant, or awkward, abject, and uncouth. The latter class of qualities may be got rid of and the former acquired; and depend upon it, it is a matter of some consequence which of them characterises your position and movements…
Slovenliness in walking characterises some. They go shuffling along, precisely as if their shoes were down at the heel – ‘slipshod’ – and they could not lift up their feet in consequence… Some have another awkwardness. They lift up their feet so high that their knees are sent out before them … Some saunter along so loosely they seem to be hung on wires; others are as stiff as if they supposed only straight lines were agreeable to the eye; and others, again, run the chin forward considerably in advance of the breast, looking very silly…”
The Victorians were subjected to countless admonishments by their etiquette experts; many seem ridiculously pernickety to the modern eye, but some recommendations echo contemporary preoccupations and insights. Like us, the Victorians acknowledged that our body language is a vitally important clue to our character – slumping, fidgeting, shuffling, loping, strutting and standing stiffly are all traits that leave an unsettling, and unfavourable, impression, seeming to denote a lack of confidence, shyness, shiftiness, arrogance or nervousness.
So how do we achieve those twin Victorian goals of grace and elegance? The etiquette experts at Debrett’s have put together the following recommendations:
The mnemonic TIGER is a simple and practical way of improving your posture and ensuring that nervousness or social anxiety is not reflected through tension in your body and through trying to make yourself smaller:
• Tauten your abdominal muscles. This will improve mobility in your hips and spine, and has the added advantage of giving your voice a lovely centred resonance.
• Inhale: breathe slowly and properly, with your stomach out as you inhale. Be careful that you don’t breathe into your shoulders. You won’t get as much oxygen like that.
• Grow: stand tall but with your feet firmly on the ground. Stretch yourself to your full height by imagining that you are being pulled upwards with an invisible piece of string. At the same time roll your shoulders back. (This process also works when sitting down).
• Equalise: distribute your weight equally on each foot – to do otherwise means tensing up one of your legs, making you look unsteady. Relaxing and feeling the ground beneath your feet makes you feel … grounded!
• Relax: let your arms hang loosely at your side, or bend your elbows and keep your hands in front of you – clasp them loosely if that’s comfortable. Don’t put them in your pockets or touch your face.
• Once you have deployed the above technique to stand tall, make sure you maintain it when you start walking and don’t revert to a hunched-over-the-computer slouch.
• Try and project your gaze about 20 feet in front of you, and avoid looking down at your feet.
• Make sure your shoulders are rolled back and not hunched up towards your ears.
• Let your arms swing freely from your shoulders, not your elbows, and move them forward and back like a pendulum – don’t let them go any higher than your chest. Swinging your arms helps the efficiency of your movement and looks natural as long as you don’t overdo it; not moving your arms looks stiff and uptight.
• With each step, roll lightly from heel to toe, and avoid flat-footed plodding. Aim for a smooth movement. You may think over-lengthening your stride looks dynamic, or bouncing up and down as you walk looks lively and enthusiastic, but both these movements put a strain on your joints and should be avoided.
• Use the TIGER mnemonic to ensure that you are upright and sit in the middle of the chair. Relax your shoulders. This will prevent you hunching over or slouching in your chair.
• Position your knees at the same height, or slightly lower than your hips if at all possible.
• Think about your legs. Women may want to avoid crossing their legs at the knees or intertwining their legs, especially if they are wearing a skirt that may ride up. Instead they should cross their legs at their ankles or place their feet together, then position their feet slightly to the side. Whatever position they choose, they should ensure that their knees are together.
• Men should avoid manspreading – sitting with their legs wide open, or resting an ankle on the opposite knee. Both these postures look arrogant and sexual.
• The best place to put your hands when you are sitting is to let them rest loosely in your lap. If the chair has arms, be wary of placing an elbow on the arm, as this will tempt you to use your hand – now at face level – to fiddle with your hair, beard etc. Never fold your arms when sitting down as it looks wary and defensive.
Looks like you haven't made a choice yet.