Principles of Politeness for the Georgian Gentlemen

Gentleman of the Georgian Era. Author’s Collection.

The term “gentleman” in the eighteenth century was described variously, and images of what a gentleman entailed was debated by writers. The famous English essayist, writer, and moralist Dr. Samuel Johnson commented that “any other derivation of this difficult word than that which cause it to signify ‘a man of ancestry’ is whimsical.”[1] Thus, he supported the idea that a gentleman was born as a gentleman and included both constituents of the English aristocracy: the peerage and the gentry. Other writers thought differently. The British literary and society journal called the Tatler begun by Richard Steele in 1709, asserted that “the appellation of Gentleman is never to be affixed to a man’s circumstances, but to his Behaviour in them.”[2]

Steele was onto something as this came to be the modern parlance for the term beginning in the early 1700s. Thus, based on Steele’s idea of gentlemanly behavior, one eighteenth century writer provided 35 politeness tips for the Georgian gentleman. I have summarized these 35 points in the following list:

  1. Honor the dinner table and your guests by carving meat well.
  2. Pay attention to your behavior at the dinner table by not spitting, scratching, or blowing your nose.
  3. Do not drink healths* as they are out of fashion and no longer the custom.
  4. Do not comply with every solicitation of company if it is unwise. For example, drinking more than appropriate even if another person thinks it is appropriate or proper.
  5. Be singular, declare your sentiments, and contradict the multitude when necessary. In other words, do not pass your life following the crowd. Do not allow others to control you or behave in ways that are in opposition to your own understanding. An example would be having an inability to refuse a glass of alcohol, drinking to excess, or making a fool of yourself.
  6. When playing cards play well and genteelly. Do not laud your triumph over the loser. Also, play for small sums.
  7. Write legibly, with proper grammar, and in a pleasing style that is not studied or affected but rather in style of how you would talk to a friend.
  8. Spell words correctly because “a woman of a tolerable education would laugh at, and despise her lover, if he wrote to her, and the words were ill-spelled.”[3]
  9. Avoid any defect in manner, air, or address that might result in a nickname as that could result in ridicule being fixed upon you.
  10. Avoid being a man of pleasure or a rake because temperance and moderation mark a gentleman. “Attend carefully, then, to the line that divides them; and remember, stop rather a yard short, than step an inch beyond it.”[4]
  11. Select your amusements wisely and preserve “propriety in every part of [your] conduct; knowing that any imitation of the manners of the mob, will unavoidably stamp [you] with vulgarity.”[5]
  12. Keep a secret because if you are tattler you will find yourself in constant scrapes.
  13. Pulling out your watch in company unasked, either home or abroad, is the mark of ill-breeding.
  14. Never be in a hurry rather be steady, cool, and deliberate because hurrying “is the proof that business we embark in is too great for us.”[6]
  15. Have familiarity with people and do not rely on mere formal visits to acquire this familiarity, as it true friendship the provides this trait.
  16. In acquiring new acquaintances, be careful not to neglect your old friends.
  17. Possess graceful manners when conferring favors and accepting favors.
  18. Guard against vanity. In other words, avoid being a coxcomb and remember, “A man’s intrinsic merit does not arise from an ennobled alliance, or a reputable acquaintance.”[7]
  19. If in the company of an inferior, do not let the person feel his or her inferiority. “This rule is never more necessary than at the table, where there cannot be a greater insult than to help an inferior to a part he dislikes, or a part that may be worse than ordinary, and to take the best yourself.”[8]
  20. Never say ill-natured things or be witty at the expense of anyone present. This includes laughing at or ridiculing another as “it will make the person, perhaps, at whose expense you are merry, your enemy forever after; and even those who laugh with you, will, on a little reflection, fear you, and probably despise you.”[9]
  21. It is best not to attempt raillery in conversation, but if it is done, it must not last too long. Moreover, an innocent jest, one that does not create uneasiness, may also be acceptable from time to time.
  22. Moderate yourself and your impatience. Thus, when anything of great curiosity or interest is shown in company, do not be the first person to “clap your hands upon it,”[10] but also do not behave with coolness or indifference.
  23. Do not whisper in company.
  24. Do behave in an inexcusable manner if you are weary of a conversation. In other words, do not cut your nails or read a letter because you are bored.
  25. Be respectful and do not be nosy. Examples of nosy behavior included peeping over someone’s shoulder reading or writing a letter, turning over letters or books on someone else’s desk, or inquiring into the secrets of others.
  26. Do not disrupt others by humming a tune to yourself, drumming your fingers, or making any kinds of noises with your feet.
  27. Do not walk fast in the streets as this is a mark of tradesmen or mechanics.
  28. Do not stare at anyone you meet.
  29. Do not eat too quickly or too slowly. “The first infers poverty, that you have not had a good meal for some time; the last, if abroad, that you dislike your entertainment.”[11]
  30. Smelling meat or any food on your fork before eating it indicates an ill-bred fellow.
  31. Do not spit on the carpet. “If you must spit, let it be in your handkerchief.”[12]
  32. Avoid taking snuff because it is filthy habit.
  33. When you withdraw from company do so discretely and when returning do not announce your return, adjust your dress, or replace your watch.
  34. Avoid indelicate conversations. Every gentleman should remember “that the clothing of his mind is as necessary to be attended to as that of his body; and that when he makes use of coarse, and dirty language, he, has dressed himself clean to little purpose.”[13]
  35. Avoid bad habits or unpleasant antics. These include “thrusting out your tongue continually, snapping your fingers, rubbing your hands, sighing aloud, … shivering of your body, [or] gasping with a noise.”[14]

*Healths were usually liquor drank with a toast for one of the six followings reasons: “(1) When a curse or imprecation in intended upon the person drinking, or (2) upon any other person; (3) when one drinks in honourable remembrance of absent living friends; or (4) by way of wishing others health and prosperity; or (5) in token of our respect and goodwill to another, or approbation of any affair; and (6) as an outward indication of our loyalty.”

References:

  • [1] Trollope, Anthony, The Prime Minister, 1876, p. 10.
  • [2] Steele, Sir Richard and Joseph Addison, Tatler and Guardian, 1813, 352.
  • [3] Trusler, John, Principles of Politeness, and of Knowing the World, 1800, p. 42.
  • [4] Ibid, p. 43.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 44.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 46.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 47.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 48.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 49.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 50.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] French, Richard Valpy, Nineteen Centuries of Drink in England, 1884, p. 284.

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