Books > The American Woman's Home (1869) > XV. Domestic Manners

The American Woman's Home

XV. Domestic Manners.

Good manners are the expressions of benevolence in personal intercourse, by which we endeavor to promote the comfort and enjoyment of others, and to avoid all that gives needless uneasiness. It is the exterior exhibition of the divine precept, which requires us to do to others as we would that they should do to us. It is saying, by our deportment, to all around, that we consider their feelings, tastes, and conveniences, as equal in value to our own.

Good manners lead us to avoid all practices which offend the taste of others; all unnecessary violations of the conventional rules of propriety; all rude and disrespectful language and deportment; and all remarks which would tend to wound the feelings of others.

There is a serious defect in the manners of the American people, especially among the descendants of the Puritan settlers of New England, which can never be efficiently remedied, except in the domestic circle, and during early life. It is a deficiency in the free expression of kindly feelings and sympathetic emotions, and a want of courtesy in deportment. The causes which have led to this result may easily be traced.

The forefathers of this nation, to a wide extent, were men who were driven from their native land by laws and customs which they believed to be opposed both to civil and religious freedom. The sufferings they were called to endure, the subduing of those gentler feelings which bind us to country, kindred, and home; and the constant subordination of the passions to stern principle, induced characters of great firmness and self-control. They gave up the comforts and refinements of a civilized country, and came as pilgrims to a hard soil, a cold clime, and a heathen shore. They were continually forced to encounter danger, privations, sickness, loneliness, and death; and all these their religion taught them to meet with calmness, fortitude, and submission. And thus it became the custom and habit of the whole mass, to repress rather than to encourage the expression of feeling.

Persons who are called to constant and protracted suffering and privation are forced to subdue and conceal emotion; for the free expression of it would double their own suffering, and increase the sufferings of others. Those, only, who are free from care and anxiety, and whose minds are mainly occupied by cheerful emotions, are at full liberty to unveil their feelings.

It was under such stern and rigorous discipline that the first children in New England were reared; and the manners and habits of parents are usually, to a great extent, transmitted to children. Thus it comes to pass, that the descendants of the Puritans, now scattered over every part of the nation, are predisposed to conceal the gentler emotions, while their manners are calm, decided, and cold, rather than free and impulsive. Of course, there are very many exceptions to these predominating characteristics.

Other causes to which we may attribute a general want of courtesy in manners are certain incidental results of our domestic institutions. Our ancestors and their descendants have constantly been combating the aristocratic principle which would exalt one class of men at the expense of another. They have had to contend with this principle, not only in civil but in social life. Almost every American, in his own person as well as in behalf of his class, has had to assume and defend the main principle of democracy—that every man's feelings and interests are equal in value to those of every other man. But, in doing this, there has been some want of clear discrimination. Because claims based on distinctions of mere birth, fortune, or position, were found to be injurious, many have gone to the extreme of inferring that all distinctions, involving subordinations, are useless. Such would wrongfully regard children as equals to parents, pupils to teachers, domestics to their employers, and subjects to magistrates—and that, too, in all respects.

The fact that certain grades of superiority and subordination are needful, both for individual and public benefit, has not been clearly discerned; and there has been a gradual tendency to an extreme of the opposite view which has sensibly affected our manners. All the proprieties and courtesies which depend on the recognition of the relative duties of superior and subordinate have been warred upon; and thus we see, to an increasing extent, disrespectful treatment of parents, by children; of teachers, by pupils; of employers, by domestics; and of the aged, by the young. In all classes and circles, there is a gradual decay in courtesy of address.

In cases, too, where kindness is rendered, it is often accompanied with a cold, unsympathizing manner, which greatly lessens its value; while kindness or politeness is received in a similar style of coolness, as if it were but the payment of a just due.

It is owing to these causes that the American people, especially the descendants of the Puritans, do not do themselves justice. For, while those who are near enough to learn their real character and feelings can discern the most generous impulses, and the most kindly sympathies, they are often so veiled behind a composed and indifferent demeanor, as to be almost entirely concealed from strangers.

These defects in our national manners it especially falls to the care of mothers, and all who have charge of the young, to rectify; and if they seriously undertake the matter, and wisely adapt means to ends, these defects will be remedied. With reference to this object, the following ideas are suggested.

The law of Christianity and of democracy, which teaches that all men are born equal in rights, and that their interests and feelings should be regarded as of equal value, seems to be adopted in aristocratic circles, with exclusive reference to the class in which the individual moves. The courtly gentleman addresses all of his own class with politeness and respect; and in all his actions, seems to allow that the feelings and convenience of these others are to be regarded the same as his own. But his demeanor to those of inferior station is not based on the same rule.

Among those who make up aristocratic circles, such as are above them are deemed of superior, and such as are below of inferior, value. Thus, if a young, ignorant, and vicious coxcomb happens to have been born a lord, the aged, the virtuous, the learned, and the well-bred of another class must give his convenience the precedence, and must address him in terms of respect. So sometimes, when a man of "noble birth" is thrown among the lower classes, he demeans himself in a style which, to persons of his own class, would be deemed the height of assumption and rudeness.

Now, the principles of democracy require that the same courtesy which we accord to our own circle shall be extended to every class and condition; and that distinctions of superiority and subordination shall depend, not on accidents of birth, fortune, or occupation, but solely on those mutual relations which the good of all classes equally require. The distinctions demanded in a democratic state are simply those which result from relations that are common to every class, and are for the benefit of all.

It is for the benefit of every class that children be subordinate to parents, pupils to teachers, the employed to their employers, and subjects to magistrates. In addition to this, it is for the general well-being that the comfort or convenience of the delicate and feeble should be preferred to that of the strong and healthy, who would suffer less by any deprivation; that precedence should be given to their elders by the young; and that reverence should be given to the hoary head.

The rules of good-breeding, in a democratic state, must be founded on these principles. It is indeed assumed that the value of the happiness of each individual is the same as that of every other; but as there must be occasions where there are advantages which all can not enjoy, there must be general rules for regulating a selection. Otherwise, there would be constant scrambling among those of equal claims, and brute force must be the final resort; in which case, the strongest would have the best of every thing. The democratic rule, then, is, that superiors in age, station, or office have precedence of subordinates; age and feebleness, of youth and strength; and the feebler sex, of more vigorous man. [Footnote: The universal practice of this nation, in thus giving precedence to woman has been severely commented on by foreigners, and by some who would transfer all the business of the other sex to women, and then have them treated like men. But we hope this evidence of our superior civilization and Christianity may increase rather than diminish.]

There is, also, a style of deportment and address which is appropriate to these different relations. It is suitable for a superior to secure compliance with his wishes from those subordinate to him by commands; but a subordinate must secure compliance with his wishes from a superior by requests. (Although the kind and considerate manner to subordinates will always be found the most effective as well as the pleasantest, by those in superior station.) It is suitable for a parent, teacher, or employer to admonish for neglect of duty; but not for an inferior to adopt such a course toward a superior. It is suitable for a superior to take precedence of a subordinate, without any remark; but not for an inferior, without previously asking leave, or offering an apology. It is proper for a superior to use language and manners of freedom and familiarity, which would be improper from a subordinate to a superior.

The want of due regard to these proprieties occasions a great defect in American manners. It is very common to hear children talk to their parents in a style proper only between companions and equals; so, also, the young address their elders; those employed, their employers; and domestics, the members of the family and their visitors, in a style which is inappropriate to their relative positions. But courteous address is required not merely toward superiors; every person desires to be thus treated, and therefore the law of benevolence demands such demeanor toward all whom we meet in the social intercourse of life. "Be ye courteous," is the direction of the apostle in reference to our treatment of all.

Good manners can be successfully cultivated only in early life and in the domestic circle. There is nothing which depends so much upon habit as the constantly recurring proprieties of good breeding; and if a child grows up without forming such habits, it is very rarely the case that they can be formed at a later period. The feeling that it is of little consequence how we behave at home if we conduct ourselves properly abroad, is a very fallacious one. Persons who are careless and ill-bred at home may imagine that they can assume good manners abroad; but they mistake. Fixed habits of tone, manner, language, and movements can not be suddenly altered; and those who are ill-bred at home, even when they try to hide their bad habits, are sure to violate many of the obvious rules of propriety, and yet be unconscious of it.

And there is nothing which would so effectually remove prejudice against our democratic institutions as the general cultivation of good-breeding in the domestic circle. Good manners are the exterior of benevolence, the minute and constant exhibitions of "peace and good-will;" and the nation, as well as the individual, which most excels in the external demonstration, as well as the internal principle, will be most respected and beloved.

It is only the training of the family state according to its true end and aim that is to secure to woman her true position and rights. When the family is instituted by marriage, it is man who is the head and chief magistrate by the force of his physical power and requirement of the chief responsibility; not less is he so according to the Christian law, by which, when differences arise, the husband has the deciding control, and the wife is to obey. "Where love is, there is no law;" but where love is not, the only dignified and peaceful course is for the wife, however much his superior, to "submit, as to God and not to man."

But this power of nature and of religion, given to man as the controlling head, involves the distinctive duty of the family state, self-sacrificing love. The husband is to "honor" the wife, to love her as himself, and thus account her wishes and happiness as of equal value with his own. But more than this, he is to love her "as Christ loved the Church;" that is, he is to "suffer" for her, if need be, in order to support and elevate and ennoble her. The father then is to set the example of self-sacrificing love and devotion; and the mother, of Christian obedience when it is required. Every boy is to be trained for his future domestic position by labor and sacrifices for his mother and sisters. It is the brother who is to do the hardest and most disagreeable work, to face the storms and perform the most laborious drudgeries. In the family circle, too, he is to give his mother and sister precedence in all the conveniences and comforts of home life.

It is only those nations where the teachings and example of Christ have had most influence that man has ever assumed his obligations of self-sacrificing benevolence in the family. And even in Christian communities, the duty of wives to obey their husbands has been more strenuously urged than the obligations of the husband to love his wife "as Christ loved the Church."

Here it is needful to notice that the distinctive duty of obedience to man does not rest on women who do not enter the relations of married life. A woman who inherits property, or who earns her own livelihood, can institute the family state, adopt orphan children and employ suitable helpers in training them; and then to her will appertain the authority and rights that belong to man as the head of a family. And when every woman is trained to some self-supporting business, she will not be tempted to enter the family state as a subordinate, except by that love for which there is no need of law.

These general principles being stated, some details in regard to domestic manners will be enumerated. In the first place, there should be required in the family a strict attention to the rules of precedence, and those modes of address appropriate to the various relations to be sustained. Children should always be required to offer their superiors, in age or station, the precedence in all comforts and conveniences, and always address them in a respectful tone and manner. The custom of adding, "Sir," or "Ma'am," to "Yes," or "No," is valuable, as a perpetual indication of a respectful recognition of superiority. It is now going out of fashion, even among the most well bred people; probably from a want of consideration of its importance. Every remnant of courtesy of address, in our customs, should be carefully cherished, by all who feel a value for the proprieties of good breeding.

If parents allow their children to talk to them, and to the grown persons in the family, in the same style in which they address each other, it will be in vain to hope for the courtesy of manner and tone which good breeding demands in the general intercourse of society. In a large family, where the elder children are grown up, and the younger are small, it is important to require the latter to treat the elder in some sense as superiors. There are none so ready as young children to assume airs of equality; and if they are allowed to treat one class of superiors in age and character disrespectfully, they will soon use the privilege universally. This is the reason, why the youngest children of a family are most apt to be pert, forward, and unmannerly.

Another point to be aimed at is, to require children always to acknowledge every act of kindness and attention, either by words or manner. If they are so trained as always to make grateful acknowledgments, when receiving favors, one of the objectionable features in American manners will be avoided.

Again, children should be required to ask leave, whenever they wish to gratify curiosity, or use an article which belongs to another. And if cases occur, when they can not comply with the rules of good-breeding, as, for instance, when they must step between a person and the fire, or take the chair of an older person, they should be taught either to ask leave, or to offer an apology.

There is another point of good-breeding, which can not, in all cases, be understood and applied by children in its widest extent. It is that which requires us to avoid all remarks which tend to embarrass, vex, mortify, or in any way wound the feelings of another. To notice personal defects; to allude to others' faults, or the faults of their friends; to speak disparagingly of the sect or party to which a person belongs; to be inattentive when addressed in conversation; to contradict flatly; to speak in contemptuous tones of opinions expressed by another; all these are violations of the rules of good-breeding, which children should be taught to regard. Under this head comes the practice of whispering and staring about, when a teacher, or lecturer, or clergyman is addressing a class or audience. Such inattention is practically saying that what the person is uttering is not worth attending to; and persons of real good-breeding always avoid it. Loud talking and laughing in a large assembly, even when no exercises are going on; yawning and gaping in company; and not looking in the face a person who is addressing you, are deemed marks of ill-breeding.

Another branch of good manners relates to the duties of hospitality. Politeness requires us to welcome visitors with cordiality; to offer them the best accommodations; to address conversation to them; and to express, by tone and manner, kindness and respect. Offering the hand to all visitors at one's own house is a courteous and hospitable custom; and a cordial shake of the hand, when friends meet, would abate much of the coldness of manner ascribed to Americans.

Another point of good breeding refers to the conventional rules of propriety and good taste. Of these, the first class relates to the avoidance of all disgusting or offensive personal habits: such as fingering the hair; obtrusively using a toothpick, or carrying one in the mouth after the needful use of it; cleaning the nails in presence of others; picking the nose; spitting on carpets; snuffing instead of using a handkerchief, or using the article in an offensive manner; lifting up the boots or shoes, as some men do, to tend them on the knee, or to finger them: all these tricks, either at home or in society, children should be taught to avoid.

Another topic, under this head, may be called table manners. To persons of good-breeding, nothing is more annoying than violations of the conventional proprieties of the table. Reaching over another person's plate; standing up, to reach distant articles, instead of asking to have them passed; using one's own knife and spoon for butter, salt, or sugar, when it is the custom of the family to provide separate utensils for the purpose; setting cups with the tea dripping from them, on the table-cloth, instead of the mats or small plates furnished; using the table-cloth instead of the napkins; eating fast, and in a noisy manner; putting large pieces in the mouth; looking and eating as if very hungry, or as if anxious to get at certain dishes; sitting at too great a distance from the table, and dropping food; laying the knife and fork on the table-cloth, instead of on the edge of the plate; picking the teeth at table: all these particulars children should be taught to avoid.

It is always desirable, too, to train children, when at table with grown persons, to be silent, except when addressed by others; or else their chattering will interrupt the conversation and comfort of their elders. They should always be required, too, to wait in silence, till all the older persons are helped.

When children are alone with their parents, it is desirable to lead them to converse and to take this as an opportunity to form proper conversational habits. But it should be a fixed rule that, when strangers are present, the children are to listen in silence and only reply when addressed. Unless this is secured, visitors will often be condemned to listen to puerile chattering, with small chance of the proper attention due to guests and superiors in age and station.

Children should be trained, in preparing themselves for the table or for appearance among the family, not only to put their hair, face, and hands in neat order, but also their nails, and to habitually attend to this latter whenever they wash their hands.

There are some very disagreeable tricks which many children practice even in families counted well-bred. Such, for example, are drumming with the fingers on some piece of furniture, or humming a tune while others are talking, or interrupting conversation by pertinacious questions, or whistling in the house instead of out-doors, or speaking several at once and in loud voices to gain attention. All these are violations of good-breeding, which children should be trained to avoid, lest they should not only annoy as children, but practice the same kind of ill manners when mature. In all assemblies for public debate, a chairman or moderator is appointed whose business it is to see that only one person speaks at a time, that no one interrupts a person when speaking, that no needless noises are made, and that all indecorums are avoided. Such an officer is sometimes greatly needed in family circles.

Children should be encouraged freely to use lungs and limbs out-doors, or in hours for sport in the house. But at other times, in the domestic circle, gentle tones and manners should be cultivated. The words gentleman and gentlewoman came originally from the fact that the uncultivated and ignorant classes used coarse and loud tones, and rough words and movements; while only the refined circles habitually used gentle tones and gentle manners. For the same reason, those born in the higher circles were called "of gentle blood." Thus it came that a coarse and loud voice, and rough, ungentle manners, are regarded as vulgar and plebeian.

All these things should be taught to children, gradually, and with great patience and gentleness. Some parents, with whom good manners are a great object, are in danger of making their children perpetually uncomfortable, by suddenly surrounding them with so many rules that they must inevitably violate some one or other a great part of the time. It is much better to begin with a few rules, and be steady and persevering with these, till a habit is formed, and then take a few more, thus making the process easy and gradual. Otherwise, the temper of children will be injured; or, hopeless of fulfilling so many requisitions, they will become reckless and indifferent to all.

If a few brief, well-considered, and sensible rules of good manners could be suspended in every school-room, and the children all required to commit them to memory, it probably would do more to remedy the defects of American manners and to advance universal good-breeding than any other mode that could be so easily adopted.

But, in reference to those who have enjoyed advantages for the cultivation of good manners, and who duly estimate its importance, one caution is necessary. Those who never have had such habits formed in youth are under disadvantages which no benevolence of temper can altogether remedy. They may often violate the tastes and feelings of others, not from a want of proper regard for them, but from ignorance of custom, or want of habit, or abstraction of mind, or from other causes which demand forbearance and sympathy, rather than displeasure. An ability to bear patiently with defects in manners, and to make candid and considerate allowance for a want of advantages, or for peculiarities in mental habits, is one mark of the benevolence of real good-breeding.

The advocates of monarchical and aristocratic institutions have always had great plausibility given to their views, by the seeming tendencies of our institutions to insubordination and bad manners. And it has been too indiscriminately conceded, by the defenders of the latter, that such are these tendencies, and that the offensive points in American manners are the necessary result of democratic principles.

But it is believed that both facts and reasoning are in opposition to this opinion. The following extract from the work of De Tocqueville, the great political philosopher of France, exhibits the opinion of an impartial observer, when comparing American manners with those of the English, who are confessedly the most aristocratic of all people.

He previously remarks on the tendency of aristocracy to make men more sympathizing with persons of their own peculiar class, and less so toward those of lower degree; and he then contrasts American manners with the English, claiming that the Americans are much the more affable, mild, and social. "In America, where the privileges of birth never existed and where riches confer no peculiar rights on their possessors, men acquainted with each other are very ready to frequent the same places, and find neither peril nor disadvantage in the free interchange of their thoughts. If they meet by accident, they neither seek nor avoid intercourse; their manner is therefore natural, frank, and open." "If their demeanor is often cold and serious, it is never haughty or constrained." But an "aristocratic pride is still extremely great among the English; and as the limits of aristocracy are still ill-defined, every body lives in constant dread, lest advantage should be taken of his familiarity. Unable to judge, at once, of the social position of those he meets, an Englishman prudently avoids all contact with him. Men are afraid, lest some slight service rendered should draw them into an unsuitable acquaintance; they dread civilities, and they avoid the obtrusive gratitude of a stranger, as much as his hatred."

Thus, facts seem to show that when the most aristocratic nation in the world is compared, as to manners, with the most democratic, the judgment of strangers is in favor of the latter. And if good manners are the outward exhibition of the democratic principle of impartial benevolence and equal rights, surely the nation which adopts this rule, both in social and civil life, is the most likely to secure the desirable exterior. The aristocrat, by his principles, extends the exterior of impartial benevolence to his own class only; the democratic principle requires it to be extended to all.

There is reason, therefore, to hope and expect more refined and polished manners in America than in any other land; while all the developments of taste and refinement, such as poetry, music, painting, sculpture, and architecture, it may be expected, will come to as high a state of perfection here as in any other nation.

If this country increases in virtue and intelligence, as it may, there is no end to the wealth which will pour in as the result of our resources of climate, soil, and navigation, and the skill, industry, energy, and enterprise of our countrymen. This wealth, if used as intelligence and virtue dictate, will furnish the means for a superior education to all classes, and every facility for the refinement of taste, intellect, and feeling.

Moreover, in this country, labor is ceasing to be the badge of a lower class; so that already it is disreputable for a man to be "a lazy gentleman." And this feeling must increase, till there is such an equalization of labor as will afford all the time needful for every class to improve the many advantages offered to them. Already through the munificence of some of our citizens, there are literary and scientific advantages offered to all classes, rarely enjoyed elsewhere. In most of our large cities and towns, the advantages of education, now offered to the poorest classes, often without charge, surpass what, some years ago, most wealthy men could purchase for any price. And it is believed that a time will come when the poorest boy in America can secure advantages, which will equal what the heir of the proudest peerage can now command.

The records of the courts of France and Germany, (as detailed by the Duchess of Orleans,) in and succeeding the brilliant reign of Louis the Fourteenth—a period which was deemed the acme of elegance and refinement—exhibit a grossness, a vulgarity, and a coarseness, not to be found among the very lowest of our respectable poor. And the biography of the English Beau Nash, who attempted to reform the manners of the gentry, in the times of Queen Anne, exhibits violations of the rules of decency among the aristocracy, which the commonest yeoman of this land would feel disgraced in perpetrating.

This shows that our lowest classes, at this period, are more refined than were the highest in aristocratic lands, a hundred years ago; and another century may show the lowest classes, in wealth, in this country, attaining as high a polish as adorns those who now are leaders of good manners in the courts of kings.