Story type: Essay
Reading that a sentinel had been punished the other day at St. Petersburg for having omitted to present arms, as her Imperial Highness, the Grand Duchess Olga, was leaving the winter palace-in her nurse’s arms-I smiled at what appeared to be needless punctilio; then, as is my habit, began turning the subject over, and gradually came to the conclusion that while it could doubtless be well to suppress much of the ceremonial encumbering court life, it might not be amiss if we engrafted a little more etiquette into our intercourse with strangers and the home relations. In our dear free and easy-going country there is a constant tendency to loosen the ties of fireside etiquette until any manners are thought good enough, as any toilet is considered sufficiently attractive for home use. A singular impression has grown up that formal politeness and the saying of gracious and complimentary things betray the toady and the hypocrite, both if whom are abhorrent to Americans.
By the force of circumstances most people are civil enough in general society; while many fail to keep to their high standard in the intimacy of home life and in their intercourse with inferiors, which is a pity, as these are the two cases where self-restraint and amenity are most required. Politeness is, after all, but the dictate of a kind heart, and supplies the oil necessary to make the social machinery run smoothly. In home life, which is the association during many hours each day of people of varying dispositions, views, and occupations, friction is inevitable; and there is especial need of lubrication to lessen the wear and tear and eliminate jarring.
Americans are always much shocked to learn that we are not popular on the Continent. Such a discovery comes to either a nation or an individual like a douche of cold water on nice, warm conceit, and brings with it a feeling of discouragement, of being unjustly treated, that is painful, for we are very “touchy” in America, and cry out when a foreigner expresses anything but admiration for our ways, yet we are the last to lend ourselves to foreign customs.
It has been a home thrust for many of us to find that our dear friends the French sympathized warmly with Spain in the recent struggle, and had little but sneers for us. One of the reasons for this partiality is not hard to discover.
The Spanish who travel are mostly members of an aristocracy celebrated for its grave courtesy, which has gone a long way toward making them popular on the Continent, while we have for years been riding rough-shod over the feelings and prejudices of the European peoples, under the pleasing but fallacious illusion that the money we spent so lavishly in foreign lands would atone for all our sins. The large majority of our travelling compatriots forget that an elaborate etiquette exists abroad regulating the intercourse between one class and another, the result of centuries of civilization, and as the Medic and Persian laws for durability. In our ignorance we break many of these social laws and give offence where none was intended.
A single illustration will explain my meaning. A young American girl once went to the mistress of a pension where she was staying and complained that the concierge of the house had been impertinent. When the proprietress asked the concierge what this meant, the latter burst out with her wrongs. “Since Miss B. has been in this house, she has never once bowed to me, or addressed a word to either my husband or myself that was not a question or an order; she walks in and out of my loge to look for letters or take her key as though my room were the street; I won’t stand such treatment from any one, much less from a girl. The duchess who lives au quatrième never passes without a kind word or an inquiry after the children or my health.”
Now this American girl had erred through ignorance of the fact that in France servants are treated as humble friends. The man who brings your matutinal coffee says “Good morning” on entering the room, and inquires if “Monsieur has slept well,” expecting to be treated with the same politeness he shows to you.
The lady who sits at the caisse of the restaurant you frequent is as sure of her position as her customers are of theirs, and exacts a courteous salutation from every one entering or leaving her presence; logically, for no gentleman would enter a ladies’ drawing-room without removing his hat. The fact that a woman is obliged to keep a shop in no way relieves him of this obligation.
People on the Continent know their friends’ servants by name, and speak to them on arriving at a house, and thank them for an opened door or offered coat; if a tip is given it is accompanied by a gracious word. So rare is this form of civility in America and England (for Britons err as gravely in this matter as ourselves) that our servants are surprised and inclined to resent politeness, as in the case of an English butler who recently came to his master and said he should be “obliged to leave.” On being questioned it came out that one of the guests was in the habit of chatting with him, “and,” added the Briton, “I won’t stand being took liberties with by no one.”
Some years ago I happened to be standing in the vestibule of the Hôtel Bristol as the Princess of Wales and her daughters were leaving. Mr. Morlock, the proprietor, was at the foot of the stairs to take leave of those ladies, who shook hands with and thanked him for his attention during their stay, and for the flowers he had sent. Nothing could have been more gracious and freer from condescension than their manner, and it undoubtedly produced the best impression. The waiter who served me at that time was also under their charm, and remarked several times that “there had never been ladies so easy to please or so considerate of the servants.”
My neighbor at dinner the other evening confided to me that she was “worn out being fitted.” “I had such an unpleasant experience this morning,” she added. “The jupière could not get one of my skirts to hang properly. After a dozen attempts I told her to send for the forewoman, when, to my horror, the girl burst out crying, and said she should lose her place if I did. I was very sorry for her, but what else could I do?” It does not seem as if that lady could be very popular with inferiors, does it?
That it needs a lighter hand and more tact to deal with tradespeople than with equals is certain, and we are sure to be the losers when we fail. The last time I was in the East a friend took me into the bazaars to see a carpet he was anxious to buy. The price asked was out of all proportion to its value, but we were gravely invited by the merchant to be seated and coffee was served, that bargaining (which is the backbone of Oriental trade) might be carried on at leisure. My friend, nervous and impatient, like all our race, turned to me and said, “What’s all this tomfoolery? Tell him I’ll give so much for his carpet; he can take it or leave it.” When this was interpreted to the bearded tradesman, he smiled and came down a few dollars in his price, and ordered more coffee. By this time we were outside his shop, and left without the carpet simply because my friend could not conform to the customs of the country he was visiting. The sale of his carpet was a big affair for the Oriental; he intended to carry it through with all the ceremony the occasion required, and would sooner not make a sale than be hustled out of his stately routine.
It is not only in intercourse with inferiors that tact is required. The treatment of children and young people in a family calls for delicate handling. The habit of taking liberties with young relations is a common form of a relaxed social code and the besetting sin of elderly people, who, having little to interest them in their own lives, imagine that their mission is to reform the ways and manners of their family. Ensconced behind the respect which the young are supposed to pay them, they give free vent to inclination, and carp, cavil, and correct. The victims may have reached maturity or even middle age, but remain always children to these social policemen, to be reproved and instructed in and out of season. “I am doing this for your own good,” is an excuse that apparently frees the veterans from the necessity of respecting the prejudices and feelings of their pupils, and lends a gloss of unselfishness to actions which are simply impertinent. Oddly enough, amateur “schoolmarms” who fall into this unpleasant habit are generally oversensitive, and resent as a personal affront any restlessness under criticism on the part of their victims. It is easy, once the habit is acquired, to carry the suavity and consideration of general society into the home circle, yet how often is it done? I should like to see the principle that ordered presentation of arms to the infant princess applied to our intimate relations, and the rights of the young and dependent scrupulously respected.
In the third act of Caste, when old Eccles steals the “coral” from his grandson’s neck, he excuses the theft by a grandiloquent soliloquy, and persuades himself that he is protecting “the weak and the humble” (pointing to himself) “against the powerful and the strong” (pointing to the baby). Alas, too many of us take liberties with those whom we do not fear, and excuse our little acts of cowardice with arguments as fallacious as those of drunken old Eccles.