The History of Etiquette: Tracing Our Polite Past

The earliest recorded codification of ideal social practices may be found in the 3rd millennium BC in the writings of Ptahhotep, a vizier in ancient Egypt, who stressed the importance of civil virtues towards others. The Chinese philosopher Confucius was the next to emphasize the need for morality to permeate all aspects of life, although he also branched out to discuss rules for eating and speaking. In the 17th century, King Louis XIV of France transformed these maxims into a means to broadcast his supremacy. Amid the ostentatious palace of Versailles, this French monarch encouraged the nobility to adopt highly-technical manners that would elevate them above the masses.

That’s the short and sweet background on etiquette. Read on for the explanations behind some of today’s customs.

Shaking hands

Dating back to Ancient Greece – a civilization that seems to be the source of many modern Western customs – this greeting was a sign of equality and mutual respect. It replaced signs of subservience, namely bows and curtsies, while also serving as proof that both parties came unarmed. In medieval Europe, the handshake became a powerful symbol of the bond between husband and wife. It was the final gesture of wedding ceremonies.

“Bless you!”

It’s almost as much of a reflex as sneezing itself. Here in the United States, when someone sneezes, “Bless you” will often be heard immediately after. Upon reflection, it is a strange custom. We don’t acknowledge similar bodily functions with such grandeur. So how did this response originate? Some cultural anthropologists point to the Greeks and Romans for starting this fascination with sneezing. They viewed it as a sign of wellness – a means of expelling bad spirits from the body – and would routinely offer blessings unto the sneezer. However, centuries later, widespread fears brought on by the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1330 cast suspicion on the sneeze. Pope Gregory VII called on the people of Europe to utter a short prayer, “Bless you”, after every sneeze to protect against the sickness.

Continental or American?

As all of our ASP grads know, there is a stark difference in dining styles once you cross the Atlantic. In the United States, a “Zig-Zag” method is used, while our European neighbors predominantly eat “Continental.” It is surprising to learn that the traditional European method was in fact this American style. The modern dining divide resulted when British colonists sailed across the Atlantic, bringing their multi-step cutting method to the New World. The colonists retained this dining style, but back in Europe, the Industrial Revolution brought a faster pace of life that left little room for the niceties and courtesies of the previous era, leading to the more streamlined Continental style.

Elbows off!

“Don’t put your elbows on the table!” The origin of this classic motherly adage dates back to medieval times. Feasts were held in great halls and hundreds of people would eat together at long wooden tables. While the food was often plentiful, space was not. Furthermore, when dining in the presence of the lords and ladies of the realm, it was deemed “peasant-like” to hunch over one’s plate, guarding the food from others. The act gave off an aura of distrust, and has since become a commonly repeated rule.

Clinking glasses

After a toast, it is tradition to clink glasses with fellow diners. This iconic act of celebration comes from a morbid past. It was started with the intention of spilling a little of the other person’s drink into your own to demonstrate that neither party had poisoned the other’s glass. The clink was a sign of good will, a feeling that has endured to today.

‘Mask’-ing recognition

While some of the customs from long ago have remained fixtures in our modern society, there are many that have faded into obscurity. For example, for hundreds of years in medieval Europe, there were standards for interacting with people in masks. It was considered impolite to display recognition of the person behind the mask, and etiquette of the era dictated to instead feign ignorance of their true identity.

As members of the ASP community, we all certainly know how to do these things, but not necessarily why we do them! It is truly interesting to trace our everyday behaviors – many of which we don’t give a second thought – back to their origins.

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