Did you know that people have been shaking hands at least since the fifth century or that Americans like a short, strong clasp while those in Arab countries prefer a weak or limp shake, followed by companionably holding each others’ wrist or forearms. And when it comes to greeting friends and relatives with a kiss, Americans and the English prefer a hug instead, while the French usually kiss once on each cheek and in the Netherlands, Egypt, Russia , Slovenia, and Macedonia three kisses are the standard.
We learned these meet-and-greet factoids and dozens more in a charming, brightly illustrated book, “An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy,” written by Bethanne Patrick and published by National Geographic with a foreword by Judith Martin, more commonly known as “Miss Manners.” Patrick, also the author of “An Uncommon History of Common Things,” writes that she has been fascinated by books about manners since receiving, when she was a bride, a vintage edition of Emily Post’s “Etiquette.”
As she describes customs and traditions through history and around the globe, Patrick’s goal is to show how manners shaped the world and that to be human is to try to be courteous, at least some of the time. She cites the Golden Rule as the guiding principle and writes: “The concept of treating others as you would be treated is an ancient and worldwide rule for living.”
A favorite story is about who exactly made the first affectionate drinking toast. It seems that in 450 A.D. British King Vortigen was at dinner with the very attractive and shrewd Rowena, daughter of the Saxon leader Hengist. She raised her glass or drinking horn and cried out an Olde English version of “My Lord, to your health.” Vortigen was so swept off his feet by her charming manners that he negotiated her bride price then and there and they were married that same evening. Hope they lived happily ever after. Other wedding courtesies that live on to this day are the henna parties Hindu brides host before the wedding, where everyone’s hands are adorned with intricate patterns, and the bride’s Money Dance at Polish weddings, when guests pin money on her gown. Nowadays we’re sure that gift cards will do.
The book also describes some famous social gaffes like the time Paul McCartney moved place cards at a formal dinner so he could sit next to his future bride. And when President George Bush, while making a speech welcoming Queen Elizabeth II, winked at the monarch. The Queen was not amused. There is also a history of archaic manners recalling common courtesies that have gone the way of the spittoon--and, yes, there was once, we are sure, a proper way to use one.
The first doyen of good manners, Ptah-Hotep, was an Egyptian official who chiseled out his etiquette guide around 2880 B.C. His sensible and still valid rules included “Do not covet more than your share.” Patrick also passes on the advice of many other manners mavens including Confucius, Erasmus, Benjamin Franklin, and, of course, Emily Post. Post’s suggestions for a perfect party naturally include: “A hostess of charm. Charm says everything—tact, sympathy, poise and perfect manners—always.”
And, oh, if you’ve ever wondered, it seems it was the Greeks who were the first to put candles on cakes and the Romans who were the first to frequently say “please.”
Myrna Blyth is Editor-In-Chief of ThirdAge.
Where are our manners?