At the risk of sounding like an ancient, humorless crone, I would argue that, as our fast-moving, social media-driven age has made contemporary life more and more informal, we would do well to bring back certain aspects of old-school etiquette. There are a lot of extinct or endangered social customs from the past that could use a good revival — like handwriting thank you notes, RSVPing, and not live-tweeting your dinner when you’re out with friends. Our manners should be rooted in respect for the people around us, and it wouldn’t kill us to be a little more rigid about these things sometimes.
That said, there are also a lot of customs from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations that now seem completely outdated, if not downright inappropriate, bits of social etiquette that was once considered merely polite but that now seems entirely out of place. Some of these customs were rooted in social mores and cultural stereotypes that just don’t work anymore, like longstanding assumptions about the dependency of women on men. Other customs from only fifty or sixty years ago now seem bizarre in the face of changing attitudes toward class, technology, and health. Sometimes a bit of old fashioned manners can be really charming, but no one is mourning the passing of these eight former signs of politeness:
The man orders the food.
One could debate endlessly about whether certain gendered customs, like a man opening a door for a woman or holding out her chair at a restaurant, are outdated. Some people find these customs patronizing, while others think they’re charming; my personal feeling is that they don’t bother me, but I’m not set on them either. I think the better route would be to extend some of these courtesies to everyone, regardless of gender. After all, it’s NICE when someone holds the door open for you, so why don’t we all start doing that?
HOWEVER, there are some gendered customs that are definitely antiquated, one of them being the old school custom of men ordering for women at restaurants. Helena Echlin explains at Chowhound that this convention began in the 19th century, when dining at restaurants first became socially acceptable for women (before that, eating out was less formalized than it is now; the dining options that did exist had male clienteles). At these early restaurants, it was customary for women to be chaperoned by men, and it was normal that the men would do the ordering. This custom held on even after restaurants started catering to women on their own. These days, a man ordering for a woman seems strange at best and condescending at worst; even if a man means well by it, it simply isn’t polite anymore to speak for someone else without her consent.
The “Ladies Menu.”
While we’re on the subject of gendered restaurant etiquette, another norm that has thankfully gone away (for the most part) is the “ladies menu,” a menu that doesn’t have any prices. The priceless menu used to be given to women at restaurants on the assumption that their male companions were hosting and therefore paying for the meal. Women, in turn, were schooled to estimate how much certain menu items were likely to cost, so that they could choose something not too cheap, but also not too expensive. Now, this seems both condescending (because it assumes that a woman would never pay for herself or act as host) and unnecessarily complicated (I don’t want to have to try to figure out if the sea bass costs more or less than the lamb. Just tell me the prices, please).
Dress up for flying.
Back when commercial flying was new, and everyone got an in-flight meal, free alcohol, and plenty of leg room, people dressed up to fly. Looking back on 1960s air travel, Keith Lovegrove, author of Airline: Style at 30,000 Feet, recalls, “I remember that it was party time on the airplane, and people really dressed as if they were going to a party.” Dressing up to fly may have been only polite then (it was even required by some airline dress codes), but the days of getting gussied up to fly are long over. Now that flying is akin to sitting in a crowded matchbox full of recycled air and angry people, I absolutely refuse to wear a skirt suit and heels. I haven’t devolved to wearing full on pajamas on flights yet (although plenty of people certainly have), but these days, comfort is key. Some may argue that we should bring some class back to our airline dressing, but, for now, most of us just want to be comfy.
Pass around cigarettes after dinner.
In Emily Post’s 1922 tome, Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, she explains proper decorum after a dinner party: “In the drawing room, … the ladies are having coffee, cigarettes, and liqueurs passed to them. There is not a modern New York hostess, scarcely even an old fashioned one, who does not have cigarettes passed after dinner.”
Thankfully, we live in an age when smoking is no longer the norm for every human on the planet; passing around a silver platter of cigarettes after dinner would now seem bizarre to guests, if not insulting (After all, it’s not very nice to pass around things that cause cancer, cardiovascular disease, and, oh yeah, premature death.)
AVOID THE APPEARANCE OF EVIL (Stay away from bachelors’ houses, ladies).
In her 1952 book, The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette, etiquette maven Amy Vanderbilt cautioned young women against visiting a bachelor’s house, lest she ruin her reputation. “Career girls” had a little more leeway, but still had to watch their steps:
Social conventions can do very little to protect a girl really bent on getting into difficulties. In this case, a girl not out of her teens would do better to avoid [dinner at a bachelor's] unless others, considerably more mature than she, are present. A career girl, from her twenties onward, can accept such an invitation but should not stay beyond ten or ten-thirty. An old rule and a good one is ‘Avoid the appearance of evil.’
Stroke his… ego.
In his 1959 book She-Manners: The Teen Girl's Book of Etiquette (Can we pause for a minute to appreciate how ridiculous the term “She-Manners” is? It sounds like etiquette for She-Hulk), Robert H. Loeb encourages young women to be polite by playing dumb:
To make him feel important, you have to forget your own desires for importance. Compliment him on his physical prowess, his mental acumen, his good looks, his virility. The worst mistake a girl can make is to make a man feel intellectually inferior or inadequate as a male. We men need a lot of reassurance. So lay it on thick but subtly. Stroke his ego. Let him think he's king much of the time.
He assures his readers, “He will love you for it, and, you know, it will make you feel extremely feminine.” I can only speak from my contemporary perspective, but pretending to be stupid doesn’t make me feel feminine. It just makes me feel actually stupid.
Never introduce people to the help.
Vogue’s 1948 Book of Etiquette is very adamant that we not treat employees like functioning humans, arguing:
“No guest or member of the family, except a very small child, should ever be introduced to employees. ‘This is my husband, Norah,’ or ‘This is my daughter, Miss Rosalie, Hardy,’ is impossibly wrong. … After such an introduction, it is not customary to shake hands.”
Many of us have never had employees before, but, as someone who is an employee, I think it’s safe to say that now it would be considered incredibly rude to refuse to introduce people to those working for you, whether their work is inside or outside your home.
It's OK to pay for a dance partner.
I had never heard of this until today, but apparently it was once de rigueur for women to pay men to dance with them while abroad. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this practice, but it does seem really weird, right? Amy Vanderbilt explained,
In many large continental hotels, paid dancing partners are frequently on duty at tea time and dinner where there is a dance orchestra. These gentlemen, who do not care for the word “gigolo” usually move discreetly among the tables seeking partners for a small fee … For unaccompanied women to employ these dancing partners in public places is correct, but for them to put the arrangement on any kind of personal plane is begging for trouble.