The Victorian era is renowned for its rigid social codes and buttoned-up etiquette rules. Propriety was of utmost importance and Victorian etiquette went much deeper than knowing the correct handshake or which fork to use. Manners dictated every facet of life, from social interactions and romantic liaisons to dress codes and how much champagne one should drink.
It would be easy to dismiss Victorian etiquette as outdated and irrelevant to modern life. But there are many lessons on manners, consideration and courtesy that we can learn from our 19th-century predecessors that will ease our everyday lives.
Do not drop in unannounced
A well-mannered Victorian would never dream of dropping in on friends unannounced. Social visits were governed by a ritual that revolved around the exchange of small cards, known as ‘visiting cards’ or ‘calling cards’.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the etiquette of ‘calling’ was already a firmly established custom in the upper echelons of society. A calling card would be delivered by the footmen of the elite classes to the servants of those they wanted to visit. The Victorian etiquette of leaving and accepting calling cards was a complicated web of strict rules and going against them could mean social suicide.
While we are not advocating a return to this rather time consuming tradition, in most social circles it is considered rude to simply show up unannounced on someone’s doorstep. Whenever possible, you should always call or text ahead of time to check if it is convenient for you to visit.
Dress for the Occasion
Victorian ladies had a dress for every occasion and would change their outfits several times a day to observe the correct protocol. There were very strict rules about what could be worn when and garments were divided according to the time of day: morning, afternoon or evening.
As stated in The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness from 1872: “It is in as bad taste to receive your morning calls in an elaborate evening dress as it would be to attend a ball in your morning wrapper.” Hats and gloves had to be worn outside at all times and were crucial for presenting a respectable appearance.
These days, dress codes are thankfully more relaxed but knowing what is appropriate for different occasions is still important. Showing up at an event and realising that you are not suitably dressed can be both embarrassing and awkward. Whether you are going to a job interview, a cocktail party or a wedding, following the correct dress code will help you make a great impression.
Know your way around the table
The Victorians were sticklers for table manners and dining was an elaborate and often complex affair. There were etiquette rules around place settings, seating plans and general behaviour at the table. A cloth napkin was placed loosely on the lap before eating, elbows were kept off the table and chewing with your mouth open was a definite no-no.
Many of the dining etiquette rules put in place during the era are still relevant today. While not every meal is a formal dining experience, mastering basic table manners is an important skill to learn from an early age. There is nothing old fashioned about holding your cutlery correctly, refraining from speaking with your mouth full and remembering to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.
Strive to be your best self
There was an increased focus on self-improvement and upward mobility in the Victorian era. In the last quarter of the 19th century the middle classes began to grow in numbers, power and confidence. Men started to become defined by their jobs rather than their family background and the idea of rising up the social ladder through hard work began to take hold.
In 1859, author Samuel Smiles published the very first self-help book. Entitled ‘Self-Help’, the book extolled the virtues of qualities such as application and perseverance. Once they had advanced up the social ranks, men could turn to books such as ‘How to Behave’ and ‘Hints from a Gentleman’ for tips on how to seamlessly blend in with their new acquaintances.
Today, investing in yourself by acquiring the skills and knowledge that allow you to be your best self, is a must if you want to get ahead in your chosen field. The importance of soft skills such as effective communication, teamwork and a positive attitude is often undervalued. However, these skills are crucial not only for career success but for long-term happiness in your personal life.
Be a good conversationalist
The Victorians knew that being a good listener was key to mastering the art of conversation. They focused their attention squarely on the person they were conversing with and showed genuine interest in the topic being discussed.
Victorians were encouraged to remain calm, collected and self-possessed at all times and to respect other people’s opinions. They avoided talking too much about themselves and refrained from saying things in public that could hurt other people’s feelings.
Today one of the biggest impediments to face-to-face communication is the mobile phone. Nearly 90 per cent of adults admit to using their mobile phone at social gatherings. At the same time, more than 8 in 10 people said that their phone use had a negative impact on the conversations they engaged in (Figures from Pew Research Center).
You can rest assured that if smartphones had existed 150 years ago, the well-mannered Victorian would not have allowed them to get in the way of a good old heart to heart.
We may have the technology that can connect us with someone on the other side of the world in mere seconds, but when it comes to good manners we could all do with taking a leaf out of the Victorians’ book. Attributes such as behaving properly at the table, listening sensitively to others and dressing appropriately for the occasion will never go out of fashion.