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Rant #440
(published June 25, 2009)
A Few Words on Etiquette
by Edgar Allan Poe
It is a matter of some slight surprise to me that in these days, full of improvement as they have been and certainly are, the science of etiquette should be so little cultivated by the mass of the people. I have, therefore, in an idle moment, ventured to lay down the following suggestions for a proper bearing in society, which may be found useful to the uninitiated.

The quality which a young man should most affect in intercourse with society is a decent modesty, but he must avoid at the same time all bashfulness or timidity. His flights must not go too far, but so are as they go let them be marked by perfect assurance and coolness. Familiarity of manner is the greatest vice of society, and when our acquaintance finds himself entitled to say, "Allow me, my dear fellow," or any such phrase, cut him directly.

Never use the term genteel—it is only to be found in the mouths of those who have it nowhere else. Never enter your own house without bowing to any one you may meet there, and on no account before strangers, grumble or find fault. A visit must always be returned;—an insult should never be overlooked.

The style of your conversation should always be in keeping with the character of the visit. You must not talk about literature on a visit of condolence, nor descant on political economy in a visit of ceremony. If you go to a house where there are children, you should take especial care to conciliate their good will by a little manly tête-à-tête. Never ask a lady any question about anything whatever, unless it be the all-important one of "popping the question," which is the star of the mind and heart from seventeen to thirty-two. Punning is now decidedly out of date. It is a silly and displeasing thing when it becomes a habit. Some one has very appropriately styled it the wit of fools. Above all, never take your hat into a drawing-room.

Your first duty at the table is to attend to the wants of the lady who sits next to you, the second to attend to your own. In performing the first, you should take care that the lady has all that she wishes, yet without appearing to direct your attention too much to her plate, for nothing is more ill-bred than to watch a person eating. If the lady be something of a gourmande, and in over-zealous pursuit of the aroma of the wind of a pigeon should raise an unmanageable portion to her mouth, you should cease all conversation with her and look steadfastly into the opposite part of the room.

If you have taken wine with every one at the table, you must not attempt to libate aught but water again till the cloth is removed. The decanter is then sent round from the head of the table, when each person may fill his own glass. At dinner never ask for ale or porter; it is a coarse mixture, and injures the taste of wine. If you should happen to be blessed with those lovely nuisances, children, and should be entertaining company, never allow them to be brought in after dinner unless they are particularly asked for. Never talk politics at a dinner-table nor in a drawing-room.

If you remove your hat, you need not at the same time bend the dorsal vertebrae of your body, unless you wish to be very reverential, as in saluting a person of distinction. If you have remarkably fine teeth, you may smile affectionately upon the bowee without speaking.

A lady should rarely take the arms of two gentlemen, one being upon either side; nor should a gentleman usually carry a lady upon each arm. The latter of these iniquities is practiced only in Vermont, the former, perhaps, in Kamtschatka. There are, to be sure, some cases in which it is necessary, for the protection of the ladies, that they should both take our arm—as in coming home from a concert, or in passing on any occasion through a crowd.

If you have bad squinting eyes, which have lost their lashes and are bordered with red, you should wear spectacles; if the defect be great, your glasses should be colored. In such cases, emulate the sky rather than the sea. Green spectacles are an abomination, fitted only for students of divinity; blue ones are respectable and even distingué. Almost every defect of face may be concealed by a judicious use and arrangement of hair. Take care, however, that your hair be not of one color and your whiskers of another; and let your wig, if you wear one, be large enough to cover the whole of your real hair. On Sunday, never wear white trousers, light vest, white stockings or light-colored gloves, and studiously avoid on that day anything like display.

In a ball-room, lead your partner through the dance very gently, only touching her fingers, not grasping her hand. Dance quietly but gracefully, moving only your legs and feet, not your body to and fro like a pendulum. If you have no ear for music, or a false ear, never dance at all.

Fashion is so completely distinguished from good-breeding that it is often opposed to it. It is, in fact, a system of refined vulgarity. What, for example, can be more vulgar than incessantly talking about forms and customs?—about silver forks and French soups? A gentleman follows these conventional habits, but follows them as matters of course. If he sees a person who eats with his knife, he concludes that that person is ignorant of the usages of the world, but he does not shriek and faint away like a perfumed dandy. If he dines at a table where there are no silver forks, he eats his dinner in perfect propriety with steel, and exhibits neither by manner or by speech that he perceives any error. To be sure, he forms his and own opinion about the condition of his entertainer, but he never presumes to harangue about such delinquencies.

By attending to these trifling regulations, young men on entering the world will be able to acquire the health of the true gentleman and a considerable insight into the knowledge of the anatomy of refinement.

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