23 Forgotten Etiquette Rules to Practice for Impeccable Manners
And their surprising origin stories.
If you want to have a good laugh, flip through an old etiquette book from centuries ago. There are lines in American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness (from 1883) that don’t just sound outdated, they seem downright ridiculous. Such exclamations as “The Dickens,” or “Mercy,” or “Good Gracious,” should never be used,” the author writes. A gentleman should also be “very careful in selecting her horse,” and women “kissing each other in public is decidedly vulgar, and is avoided entirely by ladies of delicacy and true refinement.” It’s all so adorable and antiquated. (For more laughs on how life was centuries ago, be sure to read The 28 Most Enduring Myths in American History.)
But you might also stumble across a few rules that you recognize from modern times—things we do without questioning it, like saying “hello” when you pick up the phone, or clicking glasses during a toast, or covering your mouth when you yawn. Why do we do these things anyway? You may be surprised to learn how much of the etiquette we take for granted has been around for centuries. Here are 23 old-fashioned etiquette rules that still apply today, and where they came from. So read on, and be armed with these fun facts for your next get together. Who knows? They may help you Dazzle Your Next Dinner Party.
A woman always walks on a man’s right side.
When you walk down a sidewalk with your girlfriend or wife, do you automatically position yourself on her left? It may seem arbitrary, but according to Primer, it actually goes back to medieval times. A man always carried a sword on his left side—easier to grasp it with his right hand—so keeping his lady to his right meant he was less likely to stab her accidentally. Even when swords fell out of fashion, men liked to position themselves closer to the street to protect their feminine partners from imminent dangers, like runaway carriages and horse poop. That used to be called “being a gentleman.” And for more on going about things the gentlemanly way, check out The Grown Man’s Guide to Flirting on Instagram.
Covering your mouth when you yawn.
If you thought we covered our mouths to stop from breathing in germs, you’d be wrong—unless by “germs” you mean “demons.” In ancient Rome, opening your mouth without protection was just asking for trouble. Some people reported encountering yawning dogs, which caused them to yawn. But then the dog “disappeared from sight” and they were “seized with fever” with their “face turned round backwards.” Think about that the next time you cover your mouth while yawning—are you trying to keep away the demonic dogs? And if you ever wondered why we yawn, check out This Is Why Yawns Are Contagious.
Taking your hat off while indoors.
Ancient knights had to lift their visors to prove that they were nice guys who weren’t looking for a fight, and that’s more or less the reason that wearing hats inside is still frowned upon. What exactly are you hiding under that hat?
Saying “bless you” when someone sneezes.
About 1,500 years ago, the Justinian plague (or “Black Death”) swept through Europe and killed about 25 million people, roughly half the world’s population. Pope Gregory I, the Catholic Church pontiff whose predecessor had been forced into early retirement by the plague, was understandably a little nervous about the situation, and so he decreed that when anybody was heard sneezing—one of the first signs that they’d been infected with the plague—they should be told “God bless you.” It was the “thoughts and prayers” of its day. Speaking of sneezing, here’s 9 Ways To Breathe Easier During Allergy Season.
Saying “hello” when you pick up the phone.
Nobody said “hello” to each other before the invention of telephone, other than to angrily get somebody’s attention. (“Hello! Stop what you’re doing this instant!”) Thomas Edison suggested that the salutation would be an excellent way to answer a telephone, because the word wasn’t commonly used and could be heard “ten to twenty feet away,” he said. His rival, Alexander Graham Bell, argued in favor of “ahoy-hoy.” Just imagine that, if Edison had conceded to Bell, we’d all be answering our phones with “ahoy-hoy,” like it was the most normal thing in the world.
This traditional greeting has been around since the 5th Century BC, back when carrying swords was a common as cell phones are today. Weapons were usually kept on a person’s left side in a scabbard, a fancy sheath made of leather or metal, where they could be easily pulled out. But by extending a right hand, it was a way of saying, “I’ve decided against stabbing you.” For more etiquette advice, check our Sophisticated Man’s Guide to Fine Dining.
Bringing wine to a dinner party.
Showing up to a party with a bottle of wine, or some gift for the host or hostess, feels downright obligatory in today’s age—but the tradition has only been around for less than a century. It started in Chicago in the ’30s, and quickly spread across the globe. Whether you’ve been invited to dinner in Switzerland, Russia or the U.K., don’t even think about showing up without wine to share.
Keeping your elbows off the table.
It wasn’t easy getting a seat at a medieval feast, and it wasn’t just a chance to rub shoulders with royalty. It was also an all-you-can-eat buffet unlike anything most people were accustomed to at the time. Putting your elbows on the table meant hogging valuable real estate, and keeping your table neighbors from getting their fair share. That ain’t cool, man. Why do we still demand on keeping elbows off the table today? There must be something in our collective DNA that still remembers fighting for every forkful, and getting angry when someone tries to nudge us away from the good meat with his elbows.
Not pointing your finger at someone.
Pretty much every culture is anti-pointing; some countries just consider it rude, and others consider it a moral offense. Early societies thought pointing at them meant you were trying to cast an evil spell or hex on them. But the best explanation of why we’re still so uncomfortable with pointing comes from University of Manchester professor Raymond Tallis in his book Michelangelo’s Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence, who writes that “the pointing finger prods at a vulnerability we all share. Pointing intensifies the sense we all have at times of being known and yet not-known—of helpless exposure to uncomprehending eyes that imagine they comprehend us.”
Wearing black to a funeral.
The Ancient Romans set the precedent for wearing black while in mourning—they had a dark toga called a “Toga Pulla” that was worn for funerals and occasional for protests—and the tradition continued in the Middle Ages in Europe, where black clothes were not just worn to demonstrate your sad feelings but to show off your wealth. Who else but a fabulously wealthy person could afford to walk around in a fancy black outfit just because somebody in his family had died?
Having the bride’s parents pay for the wedding.
A marriage wasn’t always about a man and woman declaring their love in front of their friends and family. For many centuries, it was about the bride’s family coming up with an appealing dowry—a fancy word for “bribe”—to entice a husband into matrimony.
The bride’s family paid for the party because everything about a wedding was a negotiation. Nothing about that antiquated idea of marriage is true anymore… except, weirdly, the part about the bride’s family getting stuck with the bill.
Not wearing white after Labor Day.
Long before air conditioning was a thing, people wore lighter colors during the summer to stay cool. So not wearing white after Labor Day wasn’t so much a social rule as a wardrobe suggestion.
Pulling a chair out for a woman.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, women would go out on the town wearing complicated, frilly hoop dresses that weren’t easy to walk around in, much less sit. When a man pulled out a chair for her, it gave her one less thing to worry about when trying to lower her butt into a sitting position.
“Showering” a bride or new parents with gifts.
The world may seem complicated and scary right now, but trust us, it used to be so much worse. Getting married or having a kid was no guarantee that good things were coming your way. Your future spouse could be taken away with little or no advance warning, and infant mortality rates have been historically staggering. So friends and family would “shower” their loved ones with gifts prior to a big life change, just in case everything went horribly wrong.
Smiling for photos.
You don’t see a lot of smiling faces in early photographs, especially during the Victorian era (much of the 19th century). This is partly because of slow exposure times and poor dental hygiene. Attitudes changed in the 20th century, thanks to Kodak film (which shortened the whole process) and people like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is often credited with using “cheese” as a cue for people to smile while being photographed. Why “cheese” of all words? Articulating a long ‘e’ sound causes you to pull back your lips and bare your teeth. Also, it sounds less weird to say than “manatee.”
RSVPing to an invitation.
It’s an acronym for a French phrase, “Répondez S’il Vous Plaît,” translated as “respond if you please.” It came into popular use during the 19th century, when people thought saying things in French made them seem classier.
Leaving a “tip” For restaurant servers.
It’s actually an acronym, first coined in British taverns during the 17th Century. If you worried that you wouldn’t get your booze or food in a timely manner, you’d slip the barkeep a T.I.P., short for “to insure promptitude.” The practice is now so common that we debate the percentage of a tip, not whether to give one at all. And gone are the days when you’d fork over some bills in advance, to inspire your waiter or waitress to hurry up and get you another round.
Never spitting on the ground.
It’s not just gross; in the early 20th century, there were concerns that spitting in public would spread disease. That projectile might splatter germs like shrapnel—with serious health repercussions.
Celebrating with a high-five.
Magic Johnson claims he invented the high-five as a student at Michigan State, but the true creator was Dusty Baker, an outfielder for the LA Dodgers (now a manager for the Washington Nationals), who hit his 30th home run of the season during a 1977 game against the Houston Astros. As he ran towards home plate, his teammate Glenn Burke was so excited that he ran out of the dugout, his hand in the air, and Baker gave it a slap. And so the high five was born.
Tipping your hat.
Like with shaking hands, tipping your hat had its origins in an age when people walked around constantly dressed for battle. Medieval knights would flip up their visors to demonstrate friendliness; exposing their face made them vulnerable, and meant they probably weren’t preparing to attack.
Clinking glasses during a toast.
The “toast” is pretty strange custom, if you think about. And the explanations for why we do this are numerous and weird. Some claim it’s because ancient cultures were worried about poisoning, so they’d spill a little wine in each other’s glasses, just to make sure nobody was trying to kill them. It’s also been hypothesized that 16th century wine was awful, so people would put toast on or in the wine to soak up the acidity. The host usually received the wine-drenched toast (as a snack), which led to speeches in his honor.
Standing for the National Anthem before a game.
It first happened by accident, in 1918, during a World Series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. The crowd was mostly empty, and most people were feeling glum and despondent because of the war. During the seventh inning stretch, the crowd “stood up to take their afternoon yawn, that has been the privilege and custom of baseball fans for many generations,” reported the New York Times.
Suddenly, the band burst into “The Star-Spangled Banner” for no apparent reason. Players and audience alike stopped and watch the performance, and a retired naval officer “stood erect, with his eyes set on the flag fluttering at the top of the lofty pole in right field.” And pretty soon everybody started singing along. By 1930, standing for the National Anthem became a baseball tradition, and it soon caught on in every other sport.
Keeping out of somebody’s personal space.
Respecting other people’s personal space isn’t just about good manners. According to neuroscientists at University College London, keeping a safe distance is the brain’s defensive mechanism. We need at least 16 inches of distance between ourselves and other people to feel safe.
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