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“Our Deportment,” a code of manners for refined society by John H. Young A.M.,1881

In society, everybody should receive equal attention, the young as well as the old. A high authority says, “If we wish our young people to grow up self-possessed and at ease, we must early train them in those graces by giving them the same attention and consideration we do those of mature years. If we snub them, and systematically neglect them, they will acquire an awkwardness and a deprecatory manner, which will be very difficult for them to overcome.”


Physical education is indispensable to every well-bred man and woman. A gentleman should not only know how to fence, to box, to ride, to shoot and to swim, but he should also know how to carry himself gracefully, and how to dance, if he would enjoy life to the utmost. A graceful carriage can best be attained by the aid of a drilling master, as dancing and boxing are taught. A man should be able to defend himself from ruffians, if attacked, and also to defend women from their insults. Dancing and calisthenics are also essential for a lady, for the better the physical training, the more graceful and self-possessed she will be. Every lady should know how to dance, whether she intends to dance in society or not. Swimming, skating, archery, games of lawn-tennis, and croquet, riding and driving, all aid in strengthening the muscles and giving open air exercise, and are therefore desirable recreations for the young of both sexes.


Awkwardness of attitude is a mark of vulgarity. Lolling, gesticulating, fidgeting, handling an eye-glass, a watch-chain or the like, gives an air of gaucherie. A lady who sits cross-legged or sidewise on her chair, who stretches out her feet, who has a habit of holding her chin, or twirling her ribbons or fingering her buttons; a man who lounges in his chair, nurses his leg, bites his nails, or caresses his foot crossed over on his knee, shows clearly a want of good home training. Each should be quiet and graceful, either in their sitting or standing position, the gentleman being allowed more freedom than the lady. He may sit cross-legged if he wishes, but should not sit with his knees far apart, nor with his foot on his knee. If an object is to be indicated, you must move the whole hand, or the head, but never point the finger.


Coughing, sneezing, clearing the throat, etc., if done at all, must be done as quickly as possible. Snuffing, hawking and expectorating must never be done in society. A sneeze can be checked by pressing the thumb or fingers firmly across the bridge of the nose. If not checked, the face should be buried in the handkerchief, during the act of sneezing, for obvious reasons.


Anecdotes should be seldom brought into a conversation. Puns are always regarded as vulgar. Repartee should be indulged in with moderation, and never kept up, as it degenerates into the vulgarity of an altercation.


The breath should be kept sweet and pure. Onions are the forbidden fruit, because of their offensiveness to the breath. No gentleman should go into the presence of ladies smelling of tobacco.


It is neither respectful nor polite to smoke in the presence of ladies, even though they have given permission, nor should a gentleman smoke in a room which ladies are in the habit of frequenting. In those homes when the husband is permitted to smoke in any room of the house, the sons will follow the father’s example, and the air of the rooms becomes like that of a public house.


Suppression of undue emotion, whether of laughter, of anger, or of mortification, of disappointment, or of selfishness in any form, is a mark of good breeding.


To be a good listener is almost as great an art as to be a good talker; but it is not enough only to listen, you must endeavor to seem interested in the conversation of those who are talking. Only the low-bred allow their impatience to be manifest.


Give precedence to those older or of higher social position than yourself, unless they required you to take the precedence, when it is better to obey than to refuse. Be more careful to give others their rank of precedence than to take your own.


Always express your own opinions with modesty, and, if called upon, defend them, but without that warmth which may lead to hard feelings. Do not enter into argument. Having spoken your mind, and thus shown you are not cowardly in your beliefs and opinions, drop the subject and lead to some other topic. There is seldom any profit in idle discussion.


A lady in company should never exhibit any anxiety to sing or play: but being requested to do so, if she intends to comply, she should do so at once, without waiting to be urged. If she refuses, she should do so in a manner that shall make her decision final. Having complied, she should not monopolize the evening with her performances, but make room for others.


Emerson says: “Our tokens of love are for the most part barbarous, cold and lifeless, because they do not represent our life. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Therefore let the farmer give his corn; the miner his gem; the sailor coral or shells; the painter his picture, and the poet his poem.” To persons of refined nature, whatever the friend creates takes added value as part of themselves—part of their lives, as it were, having gone into it. People of the highest rank, abroad, will often accept, with gratitude, a bit of embroidery done by a friend, a poem inscribed to them by an author; a painting executed by some artist; who would not care for the most expensive bauble that was offered them. Mere costliness does not constitute the soul of a present; it is the kind feeling that it manifests which gives it its value. People who possess noble natures do not make gifts where they feel neither affection nor respect, but their gifts are bestowed out of the fullness of kind hearts.

A present should be acknowledged without delay, but you must not follow it quickly by a return. It is to be taken for granted that a gift is intended to afford pleasure to the recipient, not to be regarded as a question of investment or exchange. Never allude to a present you have given, unless you have reason to believe that it has not been received by the person to whom it was sent.

Unmarried ladies should not accept presents from gentlemen who are neither related nor engaged to them, nor indebted to them for some marked favors. A married lady may accept presents from a gentleman who is indebted to her for hospitality.

In presenting a book to a friend, do not write in it the name of the person to whom it is given. But this is a rule better honored in its breach than in its observance, when the giver of the book is its author.

Presents made by a married lady to a gentleman, should be in the name of both herself and her husband.

Never refuse a present if offered in kindness, unless the circumstances are such that you cannot, with propriety, receive it. Nor, in receiving a present, make such comments as would seem to indicate that your friend cannot afford to make the present. On the other hand, never make a present which you cannot afford to make. In that case the recipient, if he or she knows anything of your circumstances, will think that you had better kept it yourself.


We should subdue our gloomy moods before we enter society. To look pleasantly and to speak kindly is a duty we owe to others. Neither should we afflict them with any dismal account of our health, state of mind or outward circumstances. Nevertheless, if another makes us the confidant of his woes, we should strive to appear sympathetic, and if possible help him to be stronger under them. A lady who shows by act, or expresses in plain, curt words, that the visit of another is unwelcome, may perhaps pride herself upon being no hypocrite. But she is, in reality, worse. She is grossly selfish. Courtesy requires her, for the time being, to forget her own feelings, and remember those of her visitor, and thus it is her duty to make that visitor happy while she remains.


When a lady offers to drive a gentleman in her phaeton, he should walk to her house, if he accepts the invitation, unless, the distance being great, she should propose to call for him. In that case he will be on the watch, so as not to keep her waiting, and, if possible, meet her on the way.


An invitation, once given, cannot be recalled, even from the best motives, without subjecting the one who recalls it to the charge of being either ignorant or regardless of all conventional rules of politeness. There is but one exception to this rule, and that is when the invitation has been delivered to the wrong person.


Avoid speaking of your birth, your travels and of all personal matters, to those who may misunderstand you, and consider it boasting. When induced to speak of them, do not dwell too long upon them, and do not speak boastfully.


Do not speak of absent persons, who are not relatives or intimate friends, by their Christian names or surnames, but always as Mr. ——, or Mrs. ——, or Miss ——. Never name anyone by the first letter of his name, as “Mr. C.” Give a foreigner his name in full when speaking of him.


Gossip and tale-bearing are always a personal confession either of malice or imbecility. The young of both sexes should not only shun these things, but, by the most thorough culture, relieve themselves from all temptation in that direction.


A gentleman never sits in the house with his hat on in the presence of ladies. Indeed, a gentleman instinctively removes his hat as soon as he enters a room, the habitual resort of ladies. A gentleman never retains his hat in a theatre or other place of public entertainment.


Never affect superiority. In the company of an inferior never let him feel his inferiority. If you invite an inferior as your guest, treat him with all the politeness and consideration you would show an equal.


Never enter a private room anywhere without knocking. Sacredly respect the private property of others, and let no curiosity tempt you to pry into letters, desks, packets, trunks, or other belongings of another. It is ill-mannered to read a written paper lying upon a table or desk; whatever it may be, it is certainly no business of yours. No person should ever look over the shoulder of another who is reading or writing. You must not question a servant or child upon family affairs. Never betray an implied confidence, even if you have not been bound to secrecy.


Nothing is more rude than to make an engagement, be it of business or pleasure, and break it. If your memory is not sufficiently retentive to keep all the engagements you make, carry a little memorandum book, and enter them there.


Chesterfield says: “As learning, honor and virtue are absolutely necessary to gain you the esteem and admiration of mankind, politeness and good-breeding are equally necessary to make you welcome and agreeable in conversation and common life. Great talents, such as honor, virtue, learning and arts, are above the generality of the world, who neither possess them themselves, nor judge of them rightly in others; but all people are judges of the lesser talents, such as civility, affability, and an obliging, agreeable address and manner; because they feel the good effects of them, as making society easy and pleasing.”


Conform your conduct as far as possible to the company you chance to be with, only do not throw yourself into improper company. It is better even to laugh at and join in with vulgarity, so that it do not degenerate into indecency, than to set yourself up as better, and better-mannered than those with whom you may chance to be associated. True politeness and genuine good manners often not only permit but absolutely demand a temporary violation of the ordinary obligations of etiquette.


Let no man speak a word against a woman at any time, or mention a woman’s name in any company where it should not be spoken. “Civility,” says Lord Chesterfield, “is particularly due to all women; and remember that no provocation whatsoever can justify any man in not being civil to every woman; and the greatest man would justly be reckoned a brute if he were not civil to the meanest woman. It is due to their sex, and is the only protection they have against the superior strength of ours.”


Never directly contradict anyone. Say, “I beg your pardon, but I think you are mistaken or misinformed,” or some such similar phrase which shall break the weight of direct contradiction. Where the matter is unimportant it is better to let it pass without correction.


You should be exceedingly cautious about expressing an unfavorable opinion relative to a young lady to a young man who appears to be attracted by, and attentive to her. If they should marry, the remembrance of your observations will not be pleasurable to yourself nor the married parties.


If a person checks himself in a conversation, you should not insist on hearing what he intended to say. There is some good reason for checking himself, and it might cause him unpleasant feelings to urge him to carry out his first intentions.


Some of the acts which may be classed as vulgarities when committed in the presence of others are given:

To sit with your back to a person, without asking to be excused.

To stand or sit with the feet wide apart.

To hum, whistle or sing in suppressed tones.

To stand with the arms akimbo; to lounge or yawn, or to do anything which shows disrespect, selfishness or indifference.

To correct inaccuracies in the statements of others, or their modes of speech.

To use profane language, or stronger expression than the occasion justifies.

To chew tobacco and its unnecessary accompaniment, spitting, are vulgar in the extreme.


A gentleman precedes a lady passing through a crowd; ladies precede gentlemen under ordinary circumstances.

Give your children, unless married, their Christian names only, or say “my daughter” or “my son,” in speaking of them to any one except servants.

Ladies in escorting each other, never offer to take the arm.

Acknowledge an invitation to stop with a friend, or any unusual attention without delay.

Never boast of birth, money or friends, or of any superior advantages you may possess.

Never ridicule others, be the object of your ridicule present or absent.

Always show respect for the religious opinions and observances of others, no matter how much they may differ from your own.

You should never scratch your head, pick your teeth, clean your nails or pick your nose in company.

Never lean your head against the wall, as you may disgust your wife or hostess by soiling the paper of her room.

Never slam a door or stamp noisily on entering a room.

Always be punctual. You have no right to waste the time of others by making them wait for you.

Always hand a chair for a lady, pick up her glove and perform any little service she may seem to require.

Never attract attention to yourself by talking or laughing loudly in public gatherings.

Keep yourself quiet and composed under all circumstances. Do not get fidgety. If you feel that time drags heavily, do not let this be apparent to others by any visible sign of uneasiness.

Refrain from absent-mindedness in the presence of others. You pay them a poor compliment if you thus forget them.

Never refuse to accept an apology for an offense, and never hesitate to make one, if one is due from you.

Never answer another rudely or impatiently. Reply courteously, at whatever inconvenience to yourself.

Never intrude upon a business man or woman in business hours unless you wish to see them on business.

Never engage a person in private conversation in presence of others, nor make any mysterious allusions which no one else understands.

On entering a room, bow slightly as a general salutation, before speaking to each of the persons assembled.

Do not seem to notice by word or glance, the deformity of another.

To administer reproof to anyone in the presence of others is very impolite. To scold at any time is unwise.

Never undertake a commission for a friend and neglect to perform it.

Never play a practical joke upon anyone, or answer a serious remark by a flippant one.

Never lend a borrowed book, and never keep such a book a single day after you are done with it.

Never pass between two persons who are talking together; and never pass before persons when it is possible to pass behind them. When such an act is absolutely necessary, always apologize for so doing.

“Never speak of a man’s virtues before his face, or his faults behind his back,” is a maxim to be remembered.

Another maxim is, “In private watch your thoughts; in your family watch your temper; in society watch your tongue.”

Never address a mere acquaintance by his or her Christian name. It is a presumption at which the acquaintance may take offense.

Haughtiness and contempt are among the habits to be avoided. The best way is to deal courteously with the rude as well as with the courteous.

In the presence of others, talk as little of yourself as possible, or of the business or profession in which you are engaged.

It shows a want of courtesy to consult your watch, either at home or abroad. If at home, it appears as though you were tired of your company, and wished them to be gone. If abroad, it appears as though the hours dragged heavily, and you were calculating how soon you would be released.

Do not touch or handle any of the ornaments in the house where you visit. They are intended to be admired, not handled by visitors.

Do not read in company. A gentleman or lady may, however, look over a book of engravings or a collection of photographs with propriety.

Every species of affectation should be avoided, as it is always detected, and exceedingly disagreeable.


Mr. Sparks, in his biography of Washington, has given to the public a collection of Washington’s directions as to personal conduct, which he called his “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company.” We give these rules entire, as the reader may be interested in learning the principles which governed the conduct of the “Father of his Country.”

Every action in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those present.

In the presence of others sing not to yourself with a humming voice, nor drum with your fingers or feet.

Speak not when others speak, sit not when others stand, and walk not when others stop.

Turn not your back to others, especially in speaking; jog not the table or desk on which another reads or writes; lean not on anyone.

Be no flatterer, neither play with anyone that delights not to be played with.

Read no letters, books or papers in company; but when there is a necessity for doing it, you must not leave. Come not near the books or writings of anyone so as to read them unasked; also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.

Let your countenance be pleasant, but in serious matters somewhat grave.

Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy.

They that are in dignity or office have in all places precedency, but whilst they are young, they ought to respect those that are their equals in birth or other qualities, though they have no public charge.

It is good manners to prefer them to whom we speak before ourselves, especially if they be above us.

Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.

In visiting the sick do not presently play the physician if you be not knowing therein.

In writing or speaking, give to every person his due title according to his degree and the custom of the place.

Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.

Undertake not to teach your equal in the art he himself professes; it savors arrogancy.

When a man does all he can though it succeeds not well, blame not him that did it.

Being to advise or reprehend anyone, consider whether it ought to be in public or in private, presently or at some other time, also in what terms to do it; and in reproving show no signs of choler, but do it with sweetness and mildness.

Mock not nor jest at anything of importance; break no jests that are sharp or biting, and if you deliver anything witty or pleasant, abstain from laughing thereat yourself.

Wherein you reprove another be unblamable yourself, for example is more prevalent than precept.

Use no reproachful language against any one, neither curses or revilings.

Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of anyone.

In your apparel be modest, and endeavor to accommodate nature rather than procure admiration. Keep to the fashion of your equals, such as are civil and orderly with respect to time and place.

Play not the peacock, looking everywhere about you to see if you be well decked, if your shoes fit well, if your stockings set neatly and clothes handsomely.

Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your reputation, for it is better to be alone than in bad company.

Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for it is a sign of a tractable and commendable nature; and in all cases of passion admit reason to govern.

Be not immodest in urging your friend to discover a secret.

Utter not base and frivolous things amongst grown and learned men, nor very difficult questions or subjects amongst the ignorant, nor things hard to be believed.

Speak not of doleful things in time of mirth nor at the table; speak not of melancholy things, as death and wounds; and if others mention them, change, if you can, the discourse. Tell not your dreams but to your intimate friends.

Break not a jest when none take pleasure in mirth. Laugh not aloud, nor at all without occasion. Deride no man’s misfortunes, though there seem to be some cause.

Speak not injurious words, neither in jest nor earnest. Scoff at none, although they give occasion.

Be not forward, but friendly and courteous, the first to salute, hear and answer, and be not pensive when it is time to converse.

Detract not from others, but neither be excessive in commending.

Go not thither where you know not whether you shall be welcome or not. Give not advice without being asked; and when desired, do it briefly.

If two contend together, take not the part of either unconstrained, and be not obstinate in your opinions; in things indifferent be of the major side.

Reprehend not the imperfection of others, for that belongs to parents, masters and superiors.

Gaze not on the marks or blemishes of others, and ask not how they came. What you may speak in secret to your friend deliver not before others.

Speak not in an unknown tongue in company, but in your own language; and that as those of quality do, and not as the vulgar. Sublime matters treat seriously.

Think before you speak; pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too heartily, but orderly and distinctly.

When another speaks, be attentive yourself, and disturb not the audience. If any hesitate in his words, help him not, nor prompt him without being desired; interrupt him not, nor answer him till his speech be ended.

Treat with men at fit times about business, and whisper not in the company of others.

Make no comparisons; and if any of the company be commended for any brave act of virtue, commend not another for the same.

Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof. In discoursing of things that you have heard, name not your author always. A secret discover not.

Be not curious to know the affairs of others, neither approach to those who speak in private.

Undertake not what you cannot perform; but be careful to keep your promise.

When you deliver a matter, do it without passion and indiscretion, however mean the person may be you do it to.

When your superiors talk to anybody, hear them; neither speak nor laugh.

In disputes be not so desirous to overcome as not to give liberty to each one to deliver his opinion, and submit to the judgment of the major part, especially if they are judges of the dispute.

Be not tedious in discourse, make not many digressions, nor repeat often the same matter of discourse.

Speak no evil of the absent, for it is unjust.

Be not angry at table, whatever happens; and if you have reason to be so show it not; put on a cheerful countenance, especially if there be strangers, for good humor makes one dish a feast.

Set not yourself at the upper end of the table; but if it be your due, or the master of the house will have it so, contend not, lest you should trouble the company.

When you speak of God or his attributes, let it be seriously, in reverence and honor, and obey your natural parents.

Let your recreations be manful, not sinful.

Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

The above is an excerpt from “Our Deportment,” a code of manners for refined society by John H. Young A.M., published in 1881. We offer it in hopes of promoting gentlemanly conduct among men—young and older—in today’s often unbalanced world.