Etiquette & Conventions

Due to Christmas, we pushed back Stephen’s post to Tuesday.  Hope everyone had a nice weekend and has a good week ahead!

A friend of mine once took the time to fully read a nearly hundred year olde tome upon the subject of etiquette, and by tome I do mean that it was of a reasonable heft and volume of words.

In said tome, were proscriptions for the proper seating arrangements around a dinner table, proper arrangements for utensils, proper courses to be served through such a meal, and many other topics esoteric to our modern sensibilities.

Once upon a time, in this very land, there were elaborate rules about how a proper young lady carried her fan.  The fan was not merely a devise to cool a southern lady upon a sweltering summer day, it was an important prop of communication with those gentlemen of an equal social standing who were versed in such means of communication.

A debutante could communicate interest, boredom, amusement, embarrassment, irritation, anger, and any other emotion she was feeling without ever uttering a single word.  A hard snap closed of the fan and her irritation was clear, but a gentle touch of the closed fan to her lips signaled to her suitor that he had her permission to kiss her.

Don’t think you gentlemen escape this too lightly.  In addition to having to properly understand and read all of this fan sign language, gentlemen had their own set of rules of etiquette involving their hats, when to doff them, when to tip them, when to hold them to their chest to show pride or respect, when to hold the hat before them with both hands to show to communicate sorrow or regret.

In addition to the personal rules of etiquette, there were many more social and public constructs and conventions.  To be effective, such rules were ubiquitous and pervasive through all levels of society, and members of society aspired to emulate the most refined and genteel.

Such conventions as a period of mourning often serve a number of purposes simultaneously, and to dismiss too lightly the purposes they serve in society is to dismiss the experiences and wisdom of our ancestors.

Convention has it that when a person dies, their widow or widower, and most immediate family, was traditionally expected to wear black throughout their period of mourning, and that a proper period of mourning was to last one year, no more and no less.

That time of a full year was important and significant.  It allowed for all of the emotional turmoil to play out even the unexpected turn of events.  In one year, the mourner would experience the anniversary of everything, every holiday, every season, every resurgent memory.  The mourner would spend their first Christmas alone, their first spring, their birthday, et cetera.

It was also important that it had a limit, an end to the mourning, because to persevere too long in sorrow is as emotionally as harmful as failing to mourn at all.  In the play Hamlet, it is a source of public embarrassment that the Queen remarried too soon, e’er “twice two months” had passed, as the King reminded Hamlet that it was too unseemly to persist too long in mourning duties.

Conventions of a bride wearing white in western cultures, red in oriental cultures, carries other messages to the community, just as the widow wearing black.  Obviously many of societies conventions are signaled by color.

Many other conventions are signaled by food in virtually all societies.  In many ways, civilization itself is built upon the sharing of food, so it is only natural that food holds a major role in many social conventions.

Conventions such as bringing food to a wake, which aids the mourners in not having to play host to the well wishers, or be distracted by the mundane tasks of cooking which would likely be neglected in their emotional state.  A church holding a pot luck covered dish dinner, receptions at a wedding, awards dinners, even back yard bar-b-ques are some of the many occasions society builds around food.

A discussion of the quaint idiosyncracies of social conventions and expectation of etiquette would be a simple nice diversion for a topic on a blog post, but it would not be in and of itself particularly meaningful.  So, let us take a little effort to look as such etiquette and conventions in a broader social and political context.

A society focused upon social conventions and personal etiquette generally appears to occur about one generation after that society has suffered through some great society wide hardship, not merely a tragedy such as a presidential assassination.

I do not believe it a mere coincidence or happenstance that the rise of the Victorian era culture took hold so strongly in America within twenty year of the devastation of the Civil War.  World War II gave rise to the culture of the American ‘50s and the picture perfect image of the nuclear family in the suburb with the white picket fence and the family car.

After tragedy, and insecurity on a wide scale, society wants to feel safe and secure, to know that everything has a place; people seek simple and stable rules to give themselves a feeling that at least some small part of the world is withing their control.

Social conventions and rules of etiquette exist not to restrict people in their behavior, but to provide people a sense of place and familiarity, a ritual of familiarity for people whose formative years were far less certain.

It is also just as predictable that those who grow up in the resulting era of etiquette chafe under what they see as overly restrictive oppression of authoritarianism.  They resent the rules of social behavior and come to resent all rules as totalitarian.

The ‘50s gave rise to the counter-culture rebelling against the American culture itself, its members adhering to communism or socialism simply because the culture they were rebelling against opposed them.

A frequent commenter on the blog is in the habit of citing a mis-quote of one G. K. Chesterton which is most appropriate here:  “‘Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up,’ was ascribed to Chesterton by John F. Kennedy in a 1945.”

That perspective perfectly describes this dichotomy of the opposing generation of etiquette and rebellion, alternating generations of people who want to build a culture upon tradition and civility followed by generations who want to tear down that culture opposing everything they see as traditional.

This may not adequately explain the cultural rebellion we currently experience, but we should certainly strive to understand the reasons for those traditional rules of etiquette and convention.

This day, as eat, drink, and be merry, as ye may or not, take some time to appreciate the reasons for those customs and traditions which we as a society still hold.  Rejoice that it is not the tradition or custom itself which is important at all, but the connections it forms and reinforce in society itself.

Bookmark the permalink.