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Unsettled Points of Etiquette


In England the higher the rank the more affable and kind I found them. It is only the little people climbing up who are disagreeable.—Sully.

Not alone of English people can this be said. In "society" all over the world it is the same; for everywhere men and women born and bred ladies and gentlemen value their reputation as such too highly to risk it by any rudeness or uncourteousness. They may upon occasion be frigidly polite, but polite they will always be. But customs vary so much that some things which would be considered polite in one country would be looked upon in another as rude or intrusive. Take, for instance, one illustration among many which might be cited. A foreigner sent on a diplomatic mission to this country brought with him letters of introduction to several members of a large family. Having affairs of importance to attend to, he was remiss about delivering these letters on this occasion, but on a second visit, having more leisure, he made it a point to have himself presented at a ball to every member of the family who was present. After the ball he told a lady of the trouble he had given himself, and asked her congratulations upon having accomplished so much in one evening. She, being upon intimate terms with him, assured him that his politeness was not only unnecessary, but would in all probability be misunderstood. "According to the customs of our country," said the lady, "you ought to have waited until they asked to be presented to you." "How could I do that," he inquired indignantly, "when it was my duty to make myself known to them, out of respect for the writer of the letters as well as for those to whom she had written? Besides, one can never be too civil to ladies and gentlemen." The lady replied, "True; only you must first be sure that you are dealing with ladies and gentlemen who understand all points of etiquette as you do." Before his return to his own country he learned his error by the result, for during a stay of some months he never received an invitation from any of the family. By following the customs of his own country, instead of adopting those of the country he was in, he had subjected himself to being looked upon as "a pushing foreigner," who valued their acquaintance so highly that he was determined to gain it, even at the sacrifice of the customs of good society.

Americans when abroad, unless in an official position, have very little opportunity of gaining a knowledge of such requirements of etiquette as had influenced this gentleman in making the overtures he had thought necessary; nor can we be expected to be acquainted with them. The rules of social etiquette are all so well understood and practiced in Europe that no opportunity presents itself for the miscomprehensions as to one's duties in society which prevail with us. There every detail is prescribed by the codes and usages of courts; and one might as well pass an acquaintance in the street without the usual salutation as neglect any one of these forms. Again to illustrate: A gentleman belonging at one time to the English legation in Washington passed a summer at one of our fashionable watering-places. His official position would have secured him the consideration to which he was entitled, even had he not been the general favorite that he was; but the men who left their cards from time to time upon him were not always particular in having themselves presented the first time they met him afterward at the club or at dinners; and looking upon this omission as he had been trained to do, it could not but seem to him an intentional rudeness on their part. The consequence was, he avoided the watering-place thereafter, and sought his summer recreation where there was less pretension at least, and where he doubtless became less exacting or more accustomed to such trifling breaches of etiquette.

For want of an exact code many points of etiquette are with us left open to discussion, and this without reference to foreign ideas. Thus the custom of inviting gentlemen to call when a married lady wishes to give them the entrée to her house seems to have become an obsolete one with a great many. Quite recently a discussion took place as to its propriety between several ladies of distinction in this city. One lady said that it was the Philadelphia custom for gentlemen to call where they wished, without waiting for an invitation, after they had made the acquaintance of any lady in the family; and more than one married woman asserted that they had never yet asked a gentleman to come to see them; while another insisted that gentlemen generally would not venture to make a call upon any married lady unless she had invited them, or they had first asked her permission. As a difference of opinion exists on this point, it would be well if it could be an understood thing that any gentleman wishing to make the acquaintance of a lady could, after having himself presented to her, leave his card at her house with his address upon it. Of course this applies only to comparative strangers, for any young man can commit his card to his mother or sister to leave for him at a house where either visits, if he wishes to be included in invitations. Unless his card is left in this way or in person, how can he expect to be remembered? Some years ago, a lady who gave a ball during the winter after her return from a residence abroad, omitted to send invitations to the young men who, having previously visited at her house, had not left their cards at her door since her arrival home, preferring to substitute gentlemen who had never been entertained by her to inviting those who were so remiss. For this reason she gave permission to several young ladies to name gentlemen among their friends whom they would like to have invited; and so agreeable to the hostess was the selection thus made that she placed permanently upon her inviting list the names of those who sufficiently appreciated her courtesy to remember afterward the slight duties which their acceptance of her hospitality imposed upon them.

Still another illustration will show what unsettled ideas many hold in regard to points of etiquette which ought not to admit of any diversity of opinion. Ladies sometimes say to each other, after having been in the habit of meeting for years without exchanging visits, "I hope you will come and see me," and almost as frequently the answer is made, "Oh, you must come and see me first." One moment of reflection would prevent a lady from making that answer, unless she were much the older of the two, when she could with propriety give that as the reason. The lady who extends the invitation makes the first advance, and the one who receives it should at least say, "I thank you—you are very kind," even if she has no intention of availing herself of it. A lady in the fashionable circles of our largest metropolis once boasted that she had never made a first visit. She was not aware, probably, that in the opinion of those conversant with the duties of her position she stamped herself as being just as underbred as if she had announced that she did not wait for any one to call upon her. No lady surely is of so little importance in the circle in which she moves as never to be placed in circumstances where a first visit is requisite from her; nor does any one in our land so nearly approach the position of a reigning monarch as to decree that all, irrespective of age or priority of residence, should make the first call upon her.

One of the most reasonable rules of etiquette is that which requires prompt replies to invitations. The reason why an invitation to dine or to an opera-box should be answered as soon as received is so evident that it will not admit of questioning; but many who are punctilious in these particulars are remiss in sending promptly their acceptances or regrets for parties and balls. Most of those who neglect this duty do so from thoughtlessness or carelessness, but there are some who have the idea that it increases their importance to delay their reply, or that promptness gives evidence of eagerness to accept or to refuse. Others, again, are prevented from paying that direct attention to an invitation which politeness requires by the inconvenience of sending a special messenger with their notes. Where any doubt exists in reference to the ability of the person invited to be present at a soirée or ball, an acceptance should be sent at once; and if afterward prevented from going a short note of explanation or regret should be despatched. It is well known that a few words make all the difference between a polite and an impolite regret. "Mrs. Gordon regrets that she cannot accept Mrs. Sydney's invitation for Tuesday evening," is not only curt, but would be considered by many positively rude. The mistake arises, however, more frequently from ignorance than from intentional rudeness. "Mrs. Gordon regrets extremely that she cannot accept Mrs. Sydney's kind invitation for Tuesday evening," is all that is necessary. All answers to invitations given in the name of the lady and gentleman of the house are generally acknowledged to both in the answer, and the envelope addressed to the lady alone.

Some persons are in the habit of sending acceptances to invitations for balls even when they know that they are not going; but this is very unfair to the hostess, not only because she orders her supper for all who accept, but because she may wish to invite others in their places if she knows in time that they are not to be present. No house is so large but it has a limit to the number of people that can be comfortably entertained; and some ladies are compelled by the length of their visiting-list to give two or three entertainments in order to include all whom they wish to invite. When the invitations are sent out ten days in advance, if answered within three days the hostess is enabled to select from her other lists such of her friends as she would like to pay the compliment of inviting twice, in case the number of regrets which she receives will permit her to do so; but delaying the answers or accepting with no intention of going puts it out of her power to send other invitations.

An invitation once given cannot be recalled, even from the best motives, without subjecting the one who recalls it to the charge of being either ignorant or regardless of all conventional rules of politeness. Some years ago a lady who had been invited with her husband to a musical entertainment given at the house of an acquaintance for a mutual friend of the inviter and the invited, received, after having accepted the invitation, a note requesting her not to come, on the ground that she had spoken slanderously of the lady for whom the soirée was to be given. Entirely innocent of the charge, she demanded an explanation, which resulted in completely exonerating her. The invitation was then repeated, but of course, as the withdrawal of it had been intended as a punishment, the rudeness was of too flagrant a character to overlook, and all visiting between the parties ceased from that day. The rule would not apply to a more recent case, where a lady gave a ball, and, in endeavoring to avoid a crush and make it agreeable for her guests, left out all young men under twenty-one years of age; but finding that she had received wrong information concerning the age of one whom she had invited, and that this one exception was much commented upon, causing her to appear inconsistent, she wrote a note asking permission to recall the invitation (having received no answer to it), and expressing her regret that she should be made to appear rude where no rudeness was intended. In this case the gentleman could, without compromising his dignity, have sent a courteous reply, assuring the lady that he perfectly understood her motives, and begging her not to give herself any uneasiness upon his account in having felt compelled to withdraw the invitation. By doing so he would have made the lady his firm friend, and had she appreciated his politeness as it would have deserved to be appreciated, she would have lost no opportunity of showing her sense of it.

There is no better test of ladies and gentlemen than the manner in which they receive being left out of a general invitation. They may feel ever so keenly the omission, but it should never betray itself in a shadow of change either in look or in tone. If the invitation is not a general one, why should any one feel hurt by being omitted? No one but the entertainer can know all the motives that influence her in her selections. And here might be mentioned several reasonable points of etiquette which may control her. When a first invitation has not been accepted, it is to be supposed that no other will be expected until the recipient of the invitation has returned the courtesy in some way, be it ever so simple. In cases where previous invitations have been accepted, even those who are not in the habit of balancing the exchange of hospitalities cannot continue to extend them year after year, however much they may wish to do so, when not the slightest disposition is shown to make any return. Then, too, many ladies are not willing to overlook the omission of leaving cards after their entertainments, and they very naturally feel that a distinction should be made between such young men as have shown an appreciation of their past courtesies and those who have not. And again, a lady may often be deterred from sending invitations to those whom she heartily wishes to invite, from her dislike of making any advance to persons who are older residents, or from a fear of being considered pushing or patronizing. A lady who never makes first calls upon those who have lived longer than herself in the city where she resides (unless in cases where age or infirmities upon the part of those inviting her makes it her province to do so), learned just before giving an entertainment that the wife of a gentleman from whom she had received assistance in the charitable labors which occupied some of her leisure hours was a native of another city; and in writing a note upon business to the gentleman she expressed her intention of calling upon his wife, explaining why she had not sooner done so. She received an immediate reply from the husband, in which, after the business had been attended to, he informed her that he and his wife selected their own circle of friends, which was quite as large as they desired to make it. The lady as promptly sent back a note in answer, in which she expressed her regret for the mistake she had made, and thanked him for having corrected the impression which she had formed of him as a gentleman in her acquaintance with him solely in business relations. Such an experience would prevent a sensitive woman from ever placing herself in a position to receive such a rudeness again from any one and therefore no one whose duty it is to make a first call, and who has not made it, should ever feel hurt or offended at not being invited by such an acquaintance, no matter how general may have been the invitation.

Ladies who are the most apt to give offence are those who divide their lists, giving two parties in the course of the year, instead of the grand crush which is more popular. Some feel aggrieved because they are not invited to both, fancying that there are reasons why an exception should be made in their favor; while others prefer the party for which no invitation was sent. Those who send regrets for the first party sometimes expect to be invited to the second, but this in no way changes the relation between the inviter and the invited. It is the misfortune and not the fault of the lady who invites that such regrets are sent; and if she is able to repeat her invitations to any upon her first list, it will surely be to those who gave such reasons for regretting as illness or absence from the city. Certainly the entertainer must desire to make both parties equally pleasant, and must select her guests to this end; and yet there are those who, when left out, do not hesitate to show her by the change in their manner that they consider themselves more capable than she is of selecting her guests.

The question is frequently asked whether replies should be sent to invitations to wedding and other receptions, and to "at-home" cards. If one receives the great compliment of being invited to a marriage ceremony (not at church), an acceptance or regret would of course be immediately sent, for it is only in the case of the reception following that any doubt seems to exist. It is generally understood that no answers are expected; but as it is certainly very polite to send a regret when one is unable to accept, why is it not equally polite to send an acceptance? After receptions it is not considered necessary for those who have been present to call, but those who are prevented from going call in person as soon as is convenient. Sometimes, as in the case of wedding receptions, many are invited for the occasion, friends either of the bride or groom, whom the relative who gives the reception has never visited, and does not wish to visit in the future. Of course the visiting then ends with the call made after the reception; for if the cards left at the reception or afterward are not returned by those of the host or hostess, no matter how desirous the recipient of the civility may be to extend her hospitality in return, she ought not to do so unless under corresponding circumstances. Frequently those who are prevented from attending wedding-receptions send their cards, and these are returned by those of the bride and groom when they make their round of visits, except in cases where, after the reception, their cards are sent with a new address. Then, of course, those who receive them always pay the first visit. The gentleman sends his card alone (when there has been no reception) where he wishes to have his wife make the acquaintance of his friends whom she has not previously visited; and the sooner the call is made under such circumstances the more polite it is considered.

The reason why an invitation to an opera-box, like an invitation to dine, must be answered immediately is because the number of seats being limited it is necessary, when regrets are received, to send out other invitations at once, in order that all may be complimented alike by receiving them upon the same day. Gentleman not receiving any special invitation to a box, who chance to be in the opera-house in a dress-suit, often pay visits of ten or fifteen minutes to the box of any lady with whom they are well acquainted. If a gentleman wishes to enter the box of some chaperone with whom he is not acquainted, he always requests some mutual acquaintance in the box to present him to the chaperone immediately upon entering. Unless invited by her to remain, he is careful not to prolong his visit beyond the time allowed. Young ladies are sometimes very thoughtless in urging young gentlemen to stay during an entire act, or even longer; but when the party is made up by the chaperone, she does not like to see the gentlemen whom she has invited incommoded by one whom she has not asked to her box.

The diversity of opinion that exists with us in reference to many points of etiquette is unfortunate; for where no fixed rules exist there must always be misapprehensions and misunderstandings; rudenesses suspected where none are intended, and sometimes resented, to the great perplexity of the offender as to the cause of the offence. It is not every one who knows how rude a thing people of the old school consider it to make use of a lady's house in calling upon a guest staying with her, and leaving no card for the hostess. This simple act of courtesy does not necessitate a continuance of visiting, inasmuch as the lady only feels obliged to return her card through her friend, leaving it to after circumstances to decide whether it will be mutually agreeable to make the acquaintance. To call upon strangers for whom dinners are given when invited to meet them is very polite, but it should not be construed into any intended impoliteness in this country if the call is not made; and it may even happen that one is unable to be presented to such guests where the dinner is large, though one should at least make the attempt. Nor is it generally understood how great is the discourtesy of permitting any person who has been shown into a house through the mistake of a servant when the ladies are engaged, to be shown out again without seeing any member of the family. The mistake having occurred, if no member of the family is able to make her appearance without considerable delay, a message should be sent down with an explanation, inquiring if the visitor will wait until one of the ladies can come down. The lady who finds herself admitted when out upon a round of calls will be without doubt only too glad of the excuse for departure; and even if calling upon matters that require an answer, her savoir faire would prevent her from waiting under such circumstances. Any hesitation upon the part of the servant who answers the bell, as to whether the ladies are at home or engaged, authorizes the persons calling to leave their cards without waiting to ascertain.

The etiquette in regard to bowing is so simple and reasonable that one would scarcely suppose it possible that any differences of opinion could exist, and yet there are some who think it a breach of politeness if one neglect to bow, although meeting half a dozen times on a promenade or in driving. Custom has made it necessary to bow only the first time in passing: after that exchange of salutations it is very properly not expected. The difference between a courteous and a familiar bow should be remembered by gentlemen who wish to make a favorable impression. A lady dislikes to receive from a man with whom she has but a slight acquaintance a bow accompanied by a broad smile, as though he were on the most familiar terms with her. It is far better to err on the other side, and to give one of those stiff, ungracious bows which some men indulge in. Those gentlemen who smile with their eyes instead of their mouths give the most charming bows. As for men who bow charmingly at one time, and with excessive hauteur at others, according as they feel in a good or bad humor, they need never be surprised if the person thus treated should cease speaking altogether; nor can any man who does not lift, or at least touch, his hat in speaking to a lady expect that she will continue her salutations.

The rules to which allusion has been made are all reasonable, but there are others which, having only an imaginary foundation in the requirements of true politeness, might be disregarded with advantage. Such, for example, as that of sending answers to invitations by a special messenger. It is equally convenient to employ a man to deliver invitations or to send them by post. With the reply it is different. Each family receiving an invitation has to send out a servant with the answer. This not being always convenient, the reply is frequently delayed—sometimes until it is forgotten. But if the foreign custom of sending acceptances and regrets by post could be brought into general use, how much more sensible it would be! It was the occasion of many comments when a few years since some cards, not invitations, were thus sent by mistake, the servant posting those which he had forgotten to deliver before the wedding had taken place. But it only needs a few resolute persons to set the example, and persist in it, to have it as generally adopted as it is abroad.