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


To cultivate the art of pleasing is not only worthy of our ambition, but it is the dictate of humanity to render ourselves as agreeable as possible to those around us. While, therefore, we condemn that false system of philosophy which recommends the practice of flattery and deception for the purpose of winning the regard of those with whom we come in contact, we would rather urge the sincere and open conduct which is founded on moral principle, and which looks to the happiness of others, not through any sordid and selfish aim, but for the reward which virtuous actions bestow. Indeed, we do not discover the necessity of duplicity and hypocrisy in our intercourse with society. The virtues and the graces are not antagonistic. The sacrifice of personal convenience for the accommodation of others; the repression of our egotism and self-esteem; the occasional endurance of whatever is disagreeable or irksome to us through consideration for the infirmities of others, are not only some of the characteristics of true politeness, but are in the very spirit of benevolence, and, we might add, religion.

The English have a rule of etiquette, that if you are introduced to a person of higher position in society than yourself, you must never recognize him when you meet, until you see whether he intends to notice you. The meaning of this rule is, that you should be polite to nobody until you see whether they mean to be polite to you, which is simply refusing politeness in the name of politeness itself. There is a story of an unfortunate clerk of the Treasury, who dined one day at the Beef-steak Club, where he sat next to a duke, who conversed freely with him at dinner. The next day, meeting the duke in the street, he saluted him. But his grace, drawing himself up, said: “May I know, sir, to whom I have the honor of speaking?” “Why, we dined together at the club yesterday—I am Mr. Timms, of the Treasury,” was the reply. “Then,” said the duke, turning on his heel, “Mr. Timms, of the Treasury, I wish you a good morning.” Though this anecdote is related in the English books as an example of etiquette, it is undoubtedly true that Mr. Timms, of the Treasury, was the politest man of the two; for even if he had made a mistake in being a little familiar in his politeness, had the duke been really a polite man he would have made the best of it, by returning the salutation, instead of the brutal mortification which he heaped upon the clerk of the Treasury. Everybody has read the anecdote of Washington, who politely returned the salutation of a negro, which caused his friend to ask if he “bowed to a negro.” “To be sure I do; do you think that I would allow a negro to outdo me in politeness?” said Washington. This is the American rule. Everybody in this country may be polite to everybody—and if any one is too haughty and too ill-bred to return the salutation, with him alone rests the responsibility and the shame.

A lady in company should never exhibit any anxiety to sing or play; but if she intends to do so, she should not affect to refuse when asked, but obligingly accede at once. If you cannot sing, or do not choose to, say so with seriousness and gravity, and put an end to the expectation promptly. After singing once or twice, cease and give place to others. There is an old saying, that a singer can with the greatest difficulty be set agoing, and when agoing, cannot be stopped.

Never commend a lady’s musical skill to another lady who herself plays.

Modern Chesterfields, who pretend to be superlatively well-bred, tell one never to be “in a hurry.” “To be in a hurry,” say they, “is ill-bred.” The dictum is absurd. It is sometimes necessary to be hurried. In the streets of the city one must hasten with the multitude. To walk or lounge, as people who have nothing else to do, in Wall Street, or Broadway, would be out of place and absurd. Judgment requires us, not less than manners, to conform slightly with the behavior of those with whom we associate or are forced to remain.

Never lose your temper at cards, and particularly avoid the exhibition of anxiety or vexation at want of success. If you are playing whist, not only keep your temper, but hold your tongue; any intimation to your partner is decidedly ungentlemanly.

Do not take upon yourself to do the honors in another man’s house, nor constitute yourself master of the ceremonies, as you will thereby offend the host and hostess.

Do not press before a lady at a theater or a concert. Always yield to her, if practicable, your seat and place. Do not sit when she is standing, without offering her your place. Consult not only your own ease, but also the comfort of those around you.

Do not cross a room in an anxious manner, and force your way up to a lady merely to receive a bow, as by so doing you attract the eyes of the company toward her. If you are desirous of being noticed by any one in particular, put yourself in their way as if by accident, and do not let them see that you have sought them out; unless, indeed, there be something very important to communicate.

Gentlemen who attend ladies to the opera, to concerts, to lectures, etc., should take off their hats on entering the room, and while showing them their seats. Having taken your seats remain quietly in them, and avoid, unless absolute necessity requires it, incommoding others by crowding out and in before them. If obliged to do this, politely apologize for the trouble you cause them. To talk during the performance is an act of rudeness and injustice. You thus proclaim your own ill-breeding and invade the rights of others, who have paid for the privilege of hearing the performers, and not for listening to you.

If you are in attendance upon a lady at any opera, concert, or lecture, you should retain your seat at her side; but if you have no lady with you, and have taken a desirable seat, you should, if need be, cheerfully relinquish it in favor of a lady, for one less eligible.

To the opera, or theater, ladies should wear opera hoods, which are to be taken off on entering. In this country, custom permits the wearing of bonnets; but as they are neither convenient nor comfortable, ladies should dispense with their use whenever they can.

Gloves should be worn by ladies in church, and in places of public amusement. Do not take them off to shake hands. Great care should be taken that they are well made and fit neatly.

If you would have your children grow up beloved and respected by their elders as well as their contemporaries, teach them good manners in their childhood. The young sovereign should first learn to obey, that he may be the better fitted to command in his turn.

Show, but do not show off, your children to strangers. Recollect, in the matter of children, how many are born every hour, each one almost as remarkable as yours in the eyes of its papa and mamma.

Notwithstanding that good general breeding is easy of attainment, and is, in fact, attained by most people, yet we may enlarge upon a saying of Emerson’s, by declaring that the world has never yet seen “a perfect gentleman.”

It is not deemed polite and respectful to smoke in the presence of ladies, even though they are amiable enough to permit it. A gentleman, therefore, is not in the habit of smoking in the parlor, for if there is nobody present to object, it leaves a smell in the room which the wife has good reason to be mortified at, if discovered by her guests.

It is very common to see persons eat, drink, and smoke to excess. Such habits are vulgar in the lowest degree. Some men pride themselves on their abilities in drinking and smoking—more especially in the latter. These are blunders that need no reasoning to expose them. The man who exhibits a tendency to excesses will, sooner or later, be shunned by all except a few of his own stamp, and not even by them be respected. Guard against excess in all things, as neither gentlemanly nor human.

Spitting is a filthy habit, and annoys one in almost every quarter, in-doors and out. Since vulgarity has had its way so extensively amongst us, every youth begins to smoke and spit before he has well cut his teeth. Smoking is unquestionably so great a pleasure to those accustomed to it, that it must not be condemned, yet the spitting associated with it detracts very much from the enjoyment. No refined person will spit where ladies are present, or in any public promenade; the habit is disgusting in the extreme, and one would almost wish that it could be checked in public by means of law.

Never scratch your head, pick your teeth, clean your nails, or, worse than all, pick your nose in company; all these things are disgusting.

To indulge in ridicule, whether the subject be present or absent, is to descend below the level of gentlemanly propriety. Your skill may excite laughter, but will not insure respect.

A reverential regard for religious observances, and religious opinions, is a distinguishing trait of a refined mind. Whatever your opinions on the subject, you are not to intrude them on others, perhaps to the shaking of their faith and happiness. Religious topics should be avoided in conversation, except where all are prepared to concur in a respectful treatment of the subject. In mixed societies the subject should never be introduced.

Frequent consultation of the watch or time-pieces is impolite, either when at home or abroad. If at home, it appears as if you were tired of your company and wished them to be gone; if abroad, as if the hours dragged heavily, and you were calculating how soon you would be released.

Never read in company. A gentleman or lady may, however, look over a book of engravings with propriety.

The simpler, and the more easy and unconstrained your manners, the more you will impress people of your good breeding.Affectation is one of the brazen marks of vulgarity.

It is very unbecoming to exhibit petulance, or angry feeling, though it is indulged in so largely in almost every circle. The true gentleman does not suffer his countenance to be easily ruffled; and we only look paltry when we suffer temper to hurry us into ill-judged expressions of feeling. “He that is soon angry dealeth foolishly.”

Commands should never be given in a commanding tone. A gentleman requests, he does not command. We are not to assume so much importance, whatever our station, as to give orders in the “imperative mood,” nor are we ever justified in thrusting the consciousness of servitude on any one. The blunder of commanding sternly is most frequently committed by those who have themselves but just escaped servitude, and we should not exhibit to others a weakness so unbecoming.

It is a great thing to be able to walk like a gentleman—that is, to get rid of the awkward, lounging, swinging gait of a clown, and stop before you reach the affected and flippant step of a dandy. In short, nothing but being a gentleman can ever give you the air and step of one. A man who has a shallow or an impudent brain will be quite sure to show it in his heels, in spite of all that rules of manners can do for him.

A gentleman never sits in the house with his hat on in the presence of ladies for a single moment. Indeed, so strong is the force of habit, that a gentleman will quite unconsciously remove his hat on entering a parlor, or drawing-room, even if there is no one present but himself. People who sit in the house with their hats on are to be suspected of having spent the most of their time in bar-rooms, and similar places. A gentleman never sits with his hat on in the theater. Gentlemen do not generally sit even in an eating-room with their hats on, if there is any convenient place to put them.

The books on etiquette will tell you, that on waiting on a lady into a carriage, or the box of a theater, you are to take off your hat; but such is not the custom among polite people in this country. The inconvenience of such a rule is a good reason against its observance in a country where the practice of politeness has in it nothing of the servility which is often attached to it in countries where the code of etiquette is dictated by the courts of monarchy. In handing a lady into a carriage, a gentleman may need to employ both his hands, and he has no third hand to hold on to his hat.

Cleanliness of person is a distinguishing trait of every well-bred person; and this not on state occasions only, but at all times, even at home. It is a folly to sit by the fire in a slovenly state, consoling oneself with the remark, “Nobody will call to-day.” Should somebody call we are in no plight to receive them, and otherwise it is an injury to the character to allow slovenly habits to control us even when we are unseen.

Chesterfield inveighs against holding a man by the button, “for if people are not willing to hear you, you had much better hold your tongue than them.” Button-holing is not a common vice, but pointing, nudging, hitting a man in the side with your fist, or giving him a kick of recognition under the table, are too common not to be noticed here as terrible breaches of deportment. Significant looks and gestures are equally objectionable, and must be avoided by all who desire to soar above positive vulgarity. I have often been annoyed by hearing a friend discourse on some person’s failings or excellences, the person referred to being only known to the speaker. It is a bad rule to talk of persons at all, but more especially if the person spoken of is not known to all the listeners.

Do not offer a person the chair from which you have just risen, unless there be no other in the room.

Never take the chair usually occupied by the lady or gentleman of the house, even though they be absent, nor use the snuff-box of another, unless he offer it.

Do not lean your head against the wall. You will either soil the paper, or get your hair well powdered with lime.

Do not touch any of the ornaments in the houses where you visit; they are meant only for the use of the lady of the house, and may be admired, but not touched.

Lord Chesterfield, in his “Advice to his Son,” justly characterizes an absent man as unfit for business or conversation. Absence of mind is usually affected, and springs in most cases from a desire to be thought abstracted in profound contemplations. The world, however, gives a man no credit for vast ideas who exhibits absence when he should be attentive, even to trifles. The world is right in this, and I would implore every studious youth to forget that he is studious when he enters company. I have seen many a man, who would have made a bright character otherwise, affect a foolish reserve, remove himself as far from others as possible, and in a mixed assembly, where social prattle or sincere conversation enlivened the hearts of the company, sit by himself abstracted in a book. It is foolish, and, what is worse for the absentee, it looks so. A hint on this subject is sufficient, and we do hint, that abstractedness of manner should never be exhibited; the greatest geniuses have ever been attentive to trifles when it so behooved them.

Affectation of superiority galls the feelings of those to whom it is offered. In company with an inferior, never let him feel his inferiority. An employer, who invites his confidential clerk to his house, should treat him in every way the same as his most distinguished guest. No reference to business should be made, and anything in the shape of command avoided. It is very easy by a look, a word, the mode of reception, or otherwise, to advertise to the other guests, “This is my clerk,” or, “The person I now treat as a guest was yesterday laboring in my service;” but such a thing would lower the host more than it would annoy the guest. Before Burns had arrived at his high popularity, he was once invited by some puffed-up lairds to dine, in order that they might have the gratification of hearing the poet sing one of his own songs. Burns was shown into the servants’ hall, and left to dine with the menials. After dinner he was invited to the drawing-room, and a glass of wine being handed to him, requested to sing one of his own songs. He immediately gave his entertainers that thrilling assertion of independence, “A man’s a man for a’ that,” and left the moment he had finished, his heart embittered at patronage offered in a manner so insulting to his poverty.

People who have risen in the world are too apt to suppose they render themselves of consequence in proportion to the pride they display, and their want of attention toward those with whom they come in contact. This is a terrible mistake, as every ill-bred act recoils with triple violence against its perpetrators, by leading the offended parties to analyze them, and to question their right of assuming a superiority to which they are but rarely entitled.

Punctuality is one of the characteristics of politeness. He who does not keep his appointments promptly is unfit for the society of gentlemen, and will soon find himself shut out from it.

In private, watch your thoughts; in your family, watch your temper; in society, watch your tongue.

Avoid restlessness in company, lest you make the whole party as fidgety as yourself. “Do not beat the ‘Devil’s tattoo’ by drumming with your fingers on the table; it cannot fail to annoy every one within hearing, and is the index of a vacant mind. Neither read the newspaper in an audible whisper, as it disturbs the attention of those near you. Both these bad habits are particularly offensive where most common, that is, in a counting or news-room. Remember, that a carelessness as to what may incommode others is the sure sign of a coarse and ordinary mind; indeed, the essential part of good breeding is more in the avoidance of whatever may be disagreeable to others, than even an accurate observance of the customs of good society.”

Good sense must, in many cases, determine good breeding; because the same thing that would be civil at one time and to one person, may be quite otherwise at another time and to another person.

Chesterfield says, “As learning, honor, and virtue are absolutely necessary to gain you the esteem and admiration of mankind, politeness and good breeding are equally necessary to make you welcome and agreeable in conversation and common life. Great talents, such as honor, virtue, learning, and parts, are above the generality of the world, who neither possess them themselves nor judge of them rightly in others; but all people are judges of the lesser talents, such as civility, affability, and an obliging, agreeable address and manner; because they feel the good effects of them, as making society easy and pleasing.”

If you are in a public room, as a library or reading-room, avoid loud conversation or laughing, which may disturb others. At the opera, or a concert, be profoundly silent during the performances; if you do not wish to hear the music, you have no right to interfere with the enjoyment of others.

In accompanying ladies to any public place, as to a concert or lecture, you should precede them in entering the room, and procure seats for them.

Never allow a lady to get a chair for herself, ring a bell, pick up a handkerchief or glove she may have dropped, or, in short, perform any service for herself which you can perform for her, when you are in the room. By extending such courtesies to your mother, sisters, or other members of your family, they become habitual, and are thus more gracefully performed when abroad.

Etiquette in church is entirely out of place; but we may here observe that a conversation wantonly profligate always offends against good manners, nor can an irreligious man ever achieve that bearing which constitutes the true gentleman. He may be very polished and observant of form, and even if so, he will, out of respect for others, refrain from intruding his opinions and abstain from attacking those of others.

Chesterfield says, “Civility is particularly due to all women; and, remember, that no provocation whatsoever can justify any man in not being civil to every woman; and the greatest man would justly be reckoned a brute if he were not civil to the meanest woman. It is due to their sex, and is the only protection they have against the superior strength of ours; nay, even a little is allowable with women; and a man may, without weakness, tell a woman she is either handsomer or wiser than she is.”

Keep your engagements. Nothing is ruder than to make an engagement, be it of business or pleasure, and break it. If your memory is not sufficiently retentive to keep all the engagements you make stored within it, carry a little memorandum book and enter them there. Especially keep any appointment made with a lady, for, depend upon it, the fair sex forgive any other fault in good breeding, sooner than a broken engagement.

The right of privacy is sacred, and should always be respected. It is exceedingly improper to enter a private room anywhere without knocking. No relation, however intimate, will justify an abrupt intrusion upon a private apartment. So the trunks, boxes, packets, papers, and letters of every individual, locked or unlocked, sealed or unsealed, are sacred. It is ill-manners even to open a book-case, or to read a written paper lying open, without permission expressed or implied. Books in an open case or on a center-table, cards in a card-case, and newspapers, are presumed to be open for examination. Be careful where you go, what you read, and what you handle, particularly in private apartments.

Avoid intermeddling with the affairs of others. This is a most common fault. A number of people seldom meet but they begin discussing the affairs of some one who is absent. This is not only uncharitable but positively unjust. It is equivalent to trying a cause in the absence of the person implicated. Even in the criminal code a prisoner is presumed to be innocent until he is found guilty. Society, however, is less just, and passes judgment without hearing the defence. Depend upon it, as a certain rule, that the people who unite with you in discussing the affairs of others will proceed to scandalize you the moment that you depart.

Be well read also, for the sake of the general company and the ladies, in the literature of the day. You will thereby enlarge the regions of pleasurable talk. Besides, it is often necessary. Haslitt, who had entertained an unfounded prejudice against Dickens’s works when they were first written, confesses that he was at last obliged to read them, because he could not enter a mixed company without hearing them admired and quoted.

Always conform your conduct, as near as possible, to the company with whom you are associated. If you should be thrown among people who are vulgar, it is better to humor them than to set yourself up, then and there, for a model of politeness. It is related of a certain king that on a particular occasion he turned his tea into his saucer, contrary to the etiquette of society, because two country ladies, whose hospitalities he was enjoying, did so. That king was a gentleman; and this anecdote serves to illustrate an important principle: namely, that true politeness and genuine good manners often not only permit, but absolutely demand, a violation of some of the arbitrary rules of etiquette. Bear this fact in mind.

Although these remarks will not be sufficient in themselves to make you a gentleman, yet they will enable you to avoid any glaring impropriety, and do much to render you easy and confident in society.

Gentility is neither in birth, manner, nor fashion—but in the Mind. A high sense of honor—a determination never to take a mean advantage of another—an adherence to truth, delicacy, and politeness toward those with whom you may have dealings—are the essential and distinguishing characteristics of a Gentleman.