Men’s Manners by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Nothing makes one feel so old as to wake up suddenly, as it were, and realize that the conditions of life have changed, and that the standards you knew and accepted in your youth have been raised or lowered. The young men you meet have somehow become uncomfortably polite, offering you armchairs in the club, and listening with a shade of deference to your stories. They are of another generation; their ways are not your ways, nor their ambitions those you had in younger days. One is tempted to look a little closer, to analyze what the change is, in what this subtle difference consists, which you feel between your past and their present. You are surprised and a little angry to discover that, among other things, young men have better manners than were general among the youths of fifteen years ago.

Anyone over forty can remember three epochs in men’s manners. When I was a very young man, there were still going about in society a number of gentlemen belonging to what was reverently called the “old school,” who had evidently taken Sir Charles Grandison as their model, read Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son with attention, and been brought up to commence letters to their fathers, “Honored Parent,” signing themselves “Your humble servant and respectful son.” There are a few such old gentlemen still to be found in the more conservative clubs, where certain windows are tacitly abandoned to these elegant-mannered fossils. They are quite harmless unless you happen to find them in a reminiscent mood, when they are apt to be a little tiresome; it takes their rusty mental machinery so long to get working! Washington possesses a particularly fine collection among the retired army and navy officers and ex-officials. It is a fact well known that no one drawing a pension ever dies.

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About 1875, a new generation with new manners began to make its appearance. A number of its members had been educated at English universities, and came home burning to upset old ways and teach their elders how to live. They broke away from the old clubs and started smaller and more exclusive circles among themselves, principally in the country. This was a period of bad manners. True to their English model, they considered it “good form” to be uncivil and to make no effort towards the general entertainment when in society. Not to speak more than a word or two during a dinner party to either of one’s neighbors was the supreme chic. As a revolt from the twice-told tales of their elders they held it to be “bad form” to tell a story, no matter how fresh and amusing it might be. An unfortunate outsider who ventured to tell one in their club was crushed by having his tale received in dead silence. When it was finished one of the party would “ring the bell,” and the circle order drinks at the expense of the man who had dared to amuse them. How the professional story-teller must have shuddered–he whose story never was ripe until it had been told a couple of hundred times, and who would produce a certain tale at a certain course as surely as clock-work.

That the story-telling type was a bore, I grant. To be grabbed on entering your club and obliged to listen to Smith’s last, or to have the conversation after dinner monopolized by Jones and his eternal “Speaking of coffee, I remember once,” etc. added an additional hardship to existence. But the opposite pose, which became the fashion among the reformers, was hardly less wearisome. To sit among a group of perfectly mute men, with an occasional word dropping into the silence like a stone in a well, was surely little better.

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A girl told me she had once sat through an entire cotillion with a youth whose only remark during the evening had been (after absorbed contemplation of the articles in question), “How do you like my socks?”

On another occasion my neighbor at table said to me:

“I think the man on my right has gone to sleep. He is sitting with his eyes closed!” She was mistaken. He was practising his newly acquired “repose of manner,” and living up to the standard of his set.

The model young man of that period had another offensive habit, his pose of never seeing you, which got on the nerves of his elders to a considerable extent. If he came into a drawing-room where you were sitting with a lady, he would shake hands with her and begin a conversation, ignoring your existence, although you may have been his guest at dinner the night before, or he yours. This was also a tenet of his creed borrowed from trans-Atlantic cousins, who, by the bye, during the time I speak of, found America, and especially our Eastern states, a happy hunting-ground,–all the clubs, country houses, and society generally opening their doors to the “sesame” of English nationality. It took our innocent youths a good ten years to discover that there was no reciprocity in the arrangement; it was only in the next epoch (the list of the three referred to) that our men recovered their self-respect, and assumed towards foreigners in general the attitude of polite indifference which is their manner to us when abroad. Nothing could have been more provincial and narrow than the ideas of our “smart” men at that time. They congregated in little cliques, huddling together in public, and cracking personal old jokes; but were speechless with mauvaise honte if thrown among foreigners or into other circles of society. All this is not to be wondered at considering the amount of their general education and reading. One charming little custom then greatly in vogue among our jeunesse doree was to remain at a ball, after the other guests had retired, tipsy, and then break anything that came to hand. It was so amusing to throw china, glass, or valuable plants, out of the windows, to strip to the waist and box or bait the tired waiters.

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I look at the boys growing up around me with sincere admiration, they are so superior to their predecessors in breeding, in civility, in deference to older people, and in a thousand other little ways that mark high-bred men. The stray Englishman, of no particular standing at home no longer finds our men eager to entertain him, to put their best “hunter” at his disposition, to board, lodge, and feed him indefinitely, or make him honorary member of all their clubs. It is a constant source of pleasure to me to watch this younger generation, so plainly do I see in them the influence of their mothers–women I knew as girls, and who were so far ahead of their brothers and husbands in refinement and culture. To have seen these girls marry and bring up their sons so well has been a satisfaction and a compensation for many disillusions. Woman’s influence will always remain the strongest lever that can be brought to bear in raising the tone of a family; it is impossible not to see about these young men a reflection of what we found so charming in their mothers. One despairs at times of humanity, seeing vulgarity and snobbishness riding triumphantly upward; but where the tone of the younger generation is as high as I have lately found it, there is still much hope for the future.

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