How To Be Polite, Well-Mannered, and Ladylike or Gentlemanly


The books of etiquette tell you, that if you have been introduced to a lady and you afterward meet her in the street, you must not bow to her unless she bow first, in order, as the books say, that she may have an opportunity to cut you if she does not wish to continue the acquaintance. This is the English fashion. But on the continent of Europe the rule is reversed, and no lady, however intimate you may be with her, will acknowledge you in the street unless you first honor her with a bow of recognition. But the American fashion is not like either of them. For here the really well-bred man always politely and respectfully bows to every lady he knows, and, if she is a well-bred woman, she acknowledges the respect paid her. If she expects no further acquaintance, her bow is a mere formal, but always respectful, recognition of the good manners which have been shown her, and no gentleman ever takes advantage of such politeness to push a further acquaintance uninvited. But why should a lady and gentleman, who know who each other are, scornfully and doggedly pass each other in the streets as though they were enemies? There is no good reason for such impoliteness, in the practice of politeness. As compared with the English, the French or continental fashion is certainly more consonant with the rules of good breeding. But the American rule is better than either, for it is based upon the acknowledged general principle, that it is every gentleman’s and lady’s duty to be polite in all places. Unless parties have done something to forfeit the respect dictated by the common rules of politeness, there should be no deviation from this practice. It is a ridiculous idea that we are to practice ill-manners in the name of etiquette.

While walking the street no one should be so absent-minded as to neglect to recognize his friends. If you do not stop, you should always bow, touch your hat, or bid your friend good day. If you stop, you can offer your hand without removing your glove. If you stop to talk, retire on one side of the walk. If your friend has a stranger with him and you have anything to say, you should apologize to the stranger. Never leave your friend abruptly to see another person without asking him to excuse your departure. If you meet a gentleman of your acquaintance walking with a lady whom you do not know, lift your hat as you salute them. If you know the lady, you should salute her first.

Never nod to a lady in the street, neither be satisfied with touching your hat, but take it off—it is a courtesy her sex demands.

A gentleman should never omit a punctilious observance of the rules of politeness to his recognized acquaintances, from an apprehension that he will not be met with reciprocal marks of respect. For instance, he should not refuse to raise his hat to an acquaintance who is accompanied by a lady, lest her escort should, from ignorance or stolidity, return his polite salutation with a nod of the head. It is better not to see him, than to set the example of a rude and indecorous salutation. In all such cases, and in all cases, he who is most courteous has the advantage, and should never feel that he has made a humiliating sacrifice of his personal dignity. It is for the party whose behavior has been boorish to have a consciousness of inferiority.

A gentleman meeting a lady acquaintance on the street, should not presume to join her in her walk without ascertaining that his company would be entirely agreeable. It might be otherwise, and she should frankly say so. A married lady usually leans upon the arm of her husband; but single ladies do not, in the day, take the arm of a gentleman, unless they are willing to acknowledge an engagement. Gentlemen always give place to ladies, and gentlemen accompanying ladies, in crossing the street.

If you have anything to say to a lady whom you may happen to meet in the street, however intimate you may be, do not stop her, but turn round and walk in company; you can take leave at the end of the street.

When you are passing in the street, and see coming toward you a person of your acquaintance, whether a lady or an elderly person, you should offer them the wall, that is to say, the side next the houses. If a carriage should happen to stop in such a manner as to leave only a narrow passage between it and the houses, beware of elbowing and rudely crowding the passengers, with a view to get by more expeditiously; wait your turn, and if any of the persons before mentioned come up, you should edge up to the wall, in order to give them the place. They also, as they pass, should bow politely to you.

If stormy weather has made it necessary to lay a plank across the gutter, which has become suddenly filled with water, it is not proper to crowd before another, in order to pass over the frail bridge.

In walking with a lady, it is customary to give her the right arm; but where circumstances render it more convenient to give her the left, it may properly be done. If you are walking with a lady on a crowded street like Broadway, by all means give her the outside, as that will prevent her from being perpetually jostled and run against by the hurrying crowd.

You should offer your arm to a lady with whom you are walking whenever her safety, comfort, or convenience may seem to require such attention on your part. At night your arm should always be tendered, and also when ascending the steps of a public building. In walking with any person you should keep step with military precision, and with ladies and elderly people you should always accommodate your speed to theirs.

If a lady with whom you are walking receives the salute of a person who is a stranger to you, you should return it, not for yourself, but for her.

When a lady whom you accompany wishes to enter a store, you should hold the door open and allow her to enter first, if practicable; for you must never pass before a lady anywhere, if you can avoid it, or without an apology.

In England, it is a mark of low breeding to smoke in the streets. But in America the rule does not hold to quite that extent; though, even here, it is not often that you catch “a gentleman of the strictest sect,” in the street with a cigar or pipe in his mouth. For a man to go into the street with a lady on his arm and a cigar in his mouth is a shocking sight, which no gentleman will ever be guilty of exhibiting; for he inevitably subjects the woman to the very worst of suspicions.

Avoid the disgusting habit of spitting.

No gentleman will stand in the doors of hotels, nor on the corners of the streets, gazing impertinently at the ladies as they pass. That is such an unmistakable sign of a loafer, that one can hardly imagine a well-bred man doing such a thing.

Never offer to shake hands with a lady in the street if you have on dark gloves, as you may soil her white ones. If you meet a lady friend with whom you wish to converse, you must not stop, but turn and walk along with her; and should she be walking with a gentleman, first assure yourself that you are not intruding before you attempt to join the two in their walk.

After twilight, a young lady would not be conducting herself in a becoming manner, by walking alone; and if she passes the evening with any one, she ought, beforehand, to provide some one to come for her at a stated hour; but if this is not practicable, she should politely ask of the person whom she is visiting, to permit a servant to accompany her. But, however much this may be considered proper, and consequently an obligation, a married lady, well educated, will disregard it if circumstances prevent her being able, without trouble, to find a conductor.

If the host wishes to accompany you himself, you must excuse yourself politely for giving him so much trouble, but finish, however, by accepting. On arriving at your house, you should offer him your thanks. In order to avoid these two inconveniences, it will be well to request your husband, or some one of your relatives, to come and wait upon you; you will, in this way, avoid all inconveniences, and be entirely free from that harsh criticism which is sometimes indulged in, especially in small towns, concerning even the most innocent acts.

If, when on your way to fulfill an engagement, a friend stops you in the street, you may, without committing any breach of etiquette, tell him of your appointment, and release yourself from a long talk, but do so in a courteous manner, expressing regret for the necessity.

In inquiring for goods at a shop or store, do not say, I want so and so, but say to the shopman—Show me such or such an article, if you please—or use some other polite form of address. If you are obliged to examine a number of articles before you are suited, apologize to the shopkeeper for the trouble you give him. If, after all, you cannot suit yourself, renew your apologies when you go away. If you make only small purchases, say to him—I am sorry for having troubled you for so trifling a thing.

You need not stop to pull off your glove to shake hands with a lady or gentleman. If it is warm weather it is more agreeable to both parties that the glove should be on—especially if it is a lady with whom you shake hands, as the perspiration of your bare hand would be very likely to soil her glove.

If a lady addresses an inquiry to a gentleman on the street, he will lift his hat, or at least touch it respectfully, as he replies. If he cannot give the information required, he will express his regrets.

When tripping over the pavement, a lady should gracefully raise her dress a little above her ankle. With her right hand she should hold together the folds of her gown and draw them toward the right side. To raise the dress on both sides, and with both hands, is vulgar. This ungraceful practice can be tolerated only for a moment when the mud is very deep.

Most American ladies in our cities wear too rich and expensive dresses in the street. Some, indeed, will sweep the side-walks with costly stuffs only fit for a drawing-room or a carriage. This is in bad taste, and is what ill-natured people would term snobbish.