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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Etiquette: One's Position in the Community

Chapter IX.
One’s Position in the Community

FIRST of all, it is necessary to decide what one’s personal idea of position is, whether this word suggests merely a social one, comprising a large or an exclusive acquaintance and leadership in social gaiety, or position established upon the foundation of communal consequence, which may, or may not, include great social gaiety. In other words, you who are establishing yourself, either as a young husband or a stranger, would you, if you could have your wish granted by a genie, choose to have the populace look upon you askance and in awe, because of your wealth and elegance, or would you wish to be loved, not as a power conferring favors which belong really to the first picture, but as a fellow-being with an understanding heart? The granting of either wish is not a bit beyond the possibilities of anyone. It is merely a question of depositing securities of value in the bank of life.

  Life, whether social or business, is a bank in which you deposit certain funds of character, intellect and heart; or other funds of egotism, hard-heartedness and unconcern; or deposit—nothing! And the bank honors your deposit, and no more. In other words, you can draw nothing out but what you have put in.
  If your community is to give you admiration and honor, it is merely necessary to be admirable and honorable. The more you put in, the more will be paid out to you. It is too trite to put on paper! But it is astonishing, isn’t it, how many people who are depositing nothing whatever, expect to be paid in admiration and respect?   3
  A man of really high position is always a great citizen first and above all. Otherwise he is a hollow puppet whether he is a millionaire or has scarcely a dime to bless himself with. In the same way, a woman’s social position that is built on sham, vanity, and selfishness, is like one of the buildings at an exposition; effective at first sight, but bound when slightly weather-beaten to show stucco and glue.   4
  It would be very presumptuous to attempt to tell any man how to acquire the highest position in his community, especially as the answer is written in his heart, his intellect, his altruistic sympathy, and his ardent civic pride. A subject, however, that is not so serious or over-aweing, and which can perhaps have directions written for it, is the lesser ambition of acquiring a social position.   5

  A bride whose family or family-in-law has social position has merely to take that which is hers by inheritance; but a stranger who comes to live in a new place, or one who has always lived in a community but unknown to society, have both to acquire a standing of their own. For example:

  The bride of good family need do nothing on her own initiative. After her marriage when she settles down in her own house or apartment, everyone who was asked to her wedding breakfast or reception, and even many who were only bidden to the church, call on her. She keeps their cards, enters them in a visiting or ordinary alphabetically indexed blank book, and within two weeks she returns each one of their calls.
  As it is etiquette for everyone when calling for the first time on a bride, to ask if she is in, the bride, in returning her first calls, should do likewise. As a matter of fact, a bride assumes the intimate visiting list of both her own and her husband’s families, whether they call on her or not. By and by, if she gives a general tea or ball, she can invite whom, among them, she wants to. She should not, however, ask any mere acquaintances of her family to her house, until they have first invited her and her husband to theirs. But if she would like to invite intimate friends of her own or of her husband, or of her family, there is no valid reason why she should not do so.   8
  Usually when a bride and groom return from their wedding trip, all their personal friends and those of their respective parents, give “parties” for them. And from being seen at one house, they are invited to another. If they go nowhere, they do not lose position but they are apt to be overlooked until people remember them by seeing them. But it is not at all necessary for young people to entertain in order to be asked out a great deal; they need merely be attractive and have engaging manners to be as popular as heart could wish. But they must make it a point to be considerate of everyone and never fail to take the trouble to go up with a smiling “How do you do” to every older lady who has been courteous enough to invite them to her house. That is not “toadying,” it is being merely polite. To go up and gush is a very different matter, and to go up and gush over a prominent hostess who has never invited them to her house, is toadying and of a very cheap variety.   9
  A really well-bred person is as charming as possible to all, but effusive to none, and shows no difference in manner either to the high or to the lowly when they are of equally formal acquaintance.  10

  The bride who is a stranger, but whose husband is well known in the town to which he brings her, is in much the same position as the bride noted above, in that her husband’s friends call on her; she returns their visits, and many of them invite her to their house. But it then devolves upon her to make herself liked, otherwise she will find herself in a community of many acquaintances but no friends. The best ingredients for likeableness are a happy expression of countenance, an unaffected manner, and a sympathetic attitude. If she is so fortunate as to possess these attributes her path will have roses enough. But a young woman with an affected pose and bad or conceited manners, will find plenty of thorns. Equally unsuccessful is she with a chip-on-her-shoulder who, coming from New York for instance, to live in Brightmeadows, insists upon dragging New York sky-scrapers into every comparison with Brightmeadows’ new six-storied building. She might better pack her trunks and go back where she came from. Nor should the bride from Brightmeadows who has married a New Yorker, flaunt Brightmeadows standards or customs, and tell Mrs. Worldly that she does not approve of a lady’s smoking! Maybe she doesn’t and she may be quite right, and she should not under the circumstances smoke herself; but she should not make a display of intolerance, or she, too, had better take the first train back home, since she is likely to find New York very, very lonely.

  When new people move into a community, bringing letters of introduction to prominent citizens, they arrive with an already made position, which ranks in direct proportion to the standing of those who wrote the introductions. Since, however, no one but “persons of position” are eligible to letters of importance, there would be no question of acquiring position—which they have—but merely of adding to their acquaintance.
  As said in another chapter, people of position are people of position the world over, and all the cities strung around the whole globe are like so many chapterhouses of a brotherhood, to which letters of introduction open the doors.  13
  However, this is off the subject, which is to advise those who have no position, or letters, how to acquire the former. It is a long and slow road to travel, particularly long and slow for a man and his wife in a big city. In New York people could live in the same house for generations, and do, and not have their next door neighbor know them even by sight. But no other city, except London, is as unaware as that. When people move to a new city, or town, it is usually because of business. The husband at least makes business acquaintances, but the wife is left alone. The only thing for her to do is to join the church of her denomination, and become interested in some activity; not only as an opening wedge to acquaintanceships and possibly intimate friendships, but as an occupation and a respite from loneliness. Her social position is gained usually at a snail’s pace—nor should she do anything to hurry it. If she is a real person, if she has qualities of mind and heart, if she has charming manners, sooner or later a certain position will come, and in proportion to her eligibility.  14
  One of the ladies with whom she works in church, having gradually learned to like her, asks her to her house. Nothing may ever come of this, but another one also inviting her, may bring an introduction to a third, who takes a fancy to her. This third lady also invites her where she meets an acquaintance she has already made on one of the two former occasions, and this acquaintance in turn invites her. By the time she has met the same people several times, they gradually, one by one, offer to go and see her, or ask her to come and see them. One inviolable rule she must not forget: it is fatal to be pushing or presuming. She must remain dignified always, natural and sympathetic when anyone approaches her, but she should not herself approach any one more than half way. A smile, the more friendly the better, is never out of place, but after smiling, she should pass on! Never grin weakly, and —— cling!  15
  If she is asked to go to see a lady, it is quite right to go. But not again, until the lady has returned the visit, or asked her to her house. And if admitted when making a first visit, she should remember not to stay more than twenty minutes at most, since it is always wiser to make others sorry to have her leave than run the risk of having the hostess wonder why her visitor doesn’t know enough to go!  16

  The outsider enters society by the same path, but it is steeper and longer because there is an outer gate of reputation called “They are not people of any position” which is difficult to unlatch. Nor is it ever unlatched to those who sit at the gate rattling at the bars, or plaintively peering in. The better, and the only way if she has not the key of birth, is through study to make herself eligible. Meanwhile, charitable, or civic work, will give her interest and occupation as well as throw her with ladies of good breeding, by association with whom she can not fail to acquire some of those qualities of manner before which the gates of society always open.

  When her husband belongs to a club, or perhaps she does too, and the neighbors are friendly and those of social importance have called on her and asked her to their houses, a newcomer does not have to stand so exactly on the chalk line of ceremony as in returning her first visits and sending out her first invitations.
  After people have dined with each other several times, it is not at all important to consider whether an invitation is owed or paid several times over. She who is hospitably inclined can ask people half a dozen times to their once if she wants to, and they show their friendliness by coming. Nor need visits be paid in alternate order. Once she is really accepted by people she can be as friendly as she chooses.  19
  When Mrs. Oldname calls on Mrs. Stranger the first time, the latter may do nothing but call in return; it would be the height of presumption to invite one of conspicuous prominence until she has first been invited by her. Nor may the Strangers ask the Oldnames to dine after being merely invited to a tea. But when Mrs. Oldname asks Mrs. Stranger to lunch, the latter might then invite the former to dinner, after which, if they accept, the Strangers can continue to invite them on occasion, whether they are invited in turn or not; especially if the Strangers are continually entertaining, and the Oldnames are not. But on no account must the Strangers’ parties be arranged solely for the benefit of any particular fashionables.  20
  The Strangers can also invite to a party any children whom their own children know at school, and Mrs. Stranger can quite properly go to fetch her own children from a party to which their schoolmates invited them.  21

  Bachelors, unless they are very well off, are not expected to give parties; nor for that matter are very young couples. All hostesses go on asking single men and young people to their houses without it ever occurring to them that any return other than politeness should be made.
  There are many couples, not necessarily in the youngest set either, who are tremendously popular in society in spite of the fact that they give no parties at all. The Lovejoys, for instance, who are clamored for everywhere, have every attribute—except money. With fewer clothes perhaps than any fashionable young woman in New York, she can’t compete with Mrs. Bobo Gilding or Constance Style for “smartness” but, as Mrs. Worldly remarked: “What would be the use of Celia Lovejoy’s beauty if it depended upon continual variation in clothes?”  23
  The only “entertaining” the Lovejoys ever do is limited to afternoon tea and occasional welsh-rarebit suppers. But they return every bit of hospitality shown them by helping to make a party “go” wherever they are. Both are amusing, both are interesting, both do everything well. They can’t afford to play cards for money, but they both play a very good game and the table is delighted to “carry them,” or they play at the same table against each other.  24
  This, by the way, is another illustration of the conduct of a gentleman; if young Lovejoy played for money he would win undoubtedly in the long run because he plays unusually well, but to use card-playing as a “means of making money” would be contrary to the ethics of a gentleman, just as playing for more than can be afforded turns a game into “gambling.”  25

  The sense of whom to invite with whom is one of the most important, and elusive, points in social knowledge. The possession or lack of it is responsible more than anything else for the social success of one woman, and the failure of another. And as it is almost impossible, without advice, for any stranger anywhere to know which people like or dislike each other, the would-be hostess must either by means of natural talent or more likely by trained attention, read the signs of liking or prejudice much as a woodsman reads a message in every broken twig or turned leaf.
  One who can read expression, perceives at a glance the difference between friendliness and polite aloofness. When a lady is unusually silent, strictly impersonal in conversation, and entirely unapproachable, something is not to her liking. The question is, what? Or usually, whom? The greatest blunder possible would be to ask her what the matter is. The cause of annoyance is probably that she finds someone distasteful and it should not be hard for one whose faculties are not asleep to discover the offender and if possible separate them, or at least never ask them together again.

Post, Emily. Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1922. Bartleby.com
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