15 Forgotten Niceties We Should Bring Back
Daily life in the 21st century is a lot more casual than it was in our grandparents’ and great grandparents’ day. We’ve traded suits and ties for t-shirts and jeans, ornate calligraphy-inscribed invitations for casual emails, and hand-written letters for emoji-filled texts. But while some of the niceties of days past may feel outdated and unnecessary, others might just be worth bringing back.
1. HAT TIPPING
Nowadays, we greet each other with a quick hello, or if we’re feeling particularly formal, a handshake. But the seemingly outdated tip of the hat—which originated as a way for knights to display friendliness—is a fun, formal way to show respect. Plus, if you’re feeling a cold coming on, a quick tip of the hat in lieu of a handshake is a good way to avoid spreading germs.
2. WAITING TO SPEAK
When we’re excited about a conversation topic, or feel like we have something important to add, it’s easy to get carried away and interrupt the person who’s speaking. But back in 1918, one etiquette guide warned, “Interruption of the speech of others is a great sin against good breeding.” Today, interruptions aren’t an unforgivable social faux pas—and to some degree, they’re considered a normal part of lively conversation. But it’s a good idea to do your best to wait your turn to speak, since interrupting can give the impression you’re not listening closely, and may even be interpreted as a sign of disrespect.
3. SOCIAL CALLS
Feeling overwhelmed by your social obligations? Back in the Victorian era, people had a pretty great solution: social calls. Between 3 and 5 p.m., women would schedule “morning calls,” allowing friends (and often suitors) to drop in for a chat. Much like a professor’s office hours today, these social calls would let people casually stop by at their convenience and allow women to relax at home between engagements. Of course, the gender dynamics of social calls could use a little 21st century updating, but imagine how easy it would be if, instead of rushing from place to place, you encouraged friends to drop by during set hours?
4. GREETING THE HOST OR HOSTESS
“On entering a crowded room, a well-mannered man seeks first the hostess,” suggests an advice book from 1869, “He endeavors to be blind and deaf to all familiar faces and voices until he has presented himself to the lady of the house—he then bows.” Nowadays, you might skip the bow—unless you’re feeling fancy—but you can still express your gratitude for the invite by greeting your host or hostess at the start of a party and making it a point to thank them for their hospitality.
5. FLOWERS AT THE DINNER TABLE
In 1891, an upscale New York City restaurant published an advice column on how to properly set a table for a dinner gathering. While much of their advice was presented as general guidelines, not strict rules, they were adamant about one thing: “Flowers should never be absent from the dinner table.” Their advice makes sense—after all, flowers are a cheap and easy way to spruce up your table for a dinner party. Or, as the restaurant explained, “No matter how homely, they add to the picturesqueness of the feast.”
6. SENDING AN RSVP
In the era of social media invites, the RSVP has fallen out of style for everything but the most formal occasions. But one 1915 etiquette book shares a piece of good advice: “All invitations that are plainly limited to a certain number of guests ... should be answered at once, in order that vacancies may be filled,” the book explains. “Whether the invitation is accompanied with the request for a reply or not, all thoughtful people will recognize the propriety.” While there’s no need to RSVP for a large or informal party, any smaller occasion like a dinner or intimate gathering—even if the invite is delivered online—deserves an RSVP.
7. HANDWRITTEN THANK-YOU CARDS …
Show your gratitude for anything from a birthday party to a job interview with a handwritten note. Sending a card via snail mail might feel old fashioned, but it’s a gesture that won’t soon be forgotten. Unlike a text or email, the classic thank-you card is unlikely to be buried by other messages—plus, it’s an easy way to show how much of an impression someone’s act of kindness made on you.
8. … AND LETTERS, IN GENERAL
Though we have other means of communication, a letter, written by hand, remains an excellent way to let someone know you’re thinking of them. One 1904 book on the etiquette of correspondence recommends writing in black ink on paper in “shades of pale lavender, green, blue, buff, and pearl gray.”
9. SPEAKING CLEARLY ON THE PHONE
In the cell phone era, we’re just as likely to make an important phone call on a noisy public street as we are from the quiet solitude of a home or office. But we really should pay a little more attention to what the person on the other end of the line might be hearing. In the past, when telephone reception was a little fuzzier, phone companies and advice books recommended everything from keeping the phone exactly one and a half inches from your face, to making sure to move your mustache hairs away from the phone receiver while speaking. While neither of those recommendations are likely to help much today, the sentiment of the advice still applies: Make sure you’re speaking clearly when you talk on the phone, and do your best to call from a quiet location to ensure your voice is heard.
When it comes to attending a dinner party, there’s no such thing as “fashionably late.” As one old etiquette book explains, “It is proper to arrive from five to fifteen minutes before the hour mentioned in the invitation, allowing time to pay respects to the host and hostess, without haste of manner, before the dinner is announced.” Take a note from 1915 and arrive at dinners a little bit early to keep everything moving at a leisurely pace.
11. CLASSY CONVERSATION
“It is said that one can tell during a conversation that lasts not longer than a summer shower whether or not a man is cultivated,” explains one 1921 book of etiquette. “Often it does not take even so long, for a raucous tone of voice and grossly ungrammatical or vulgar expressions brand a man at once as beyond the pale of polite society.” While you probably won’t offend anyone with a grammatical slip-up these days, it’s still a good idea to keep conversations free of bad language or an overly raucous tone—especially if you’re in a professional setting.
12. TIPPING HOTEL EMPLOYEES
While it’s common practice to tip the porter who carries your bag, or the employee who cleans your room, one 1921 etiquette guide recommends tipping anyone who assists you during your stay at a hotel. After all, it makes sense to show gratitude for good service wherever it occurs. “At a hotel … remember the hall-boy, the chamber-maid, the porter, and the waiter in the dining room,” the book recommends, concluding that hotel visitors should tip those who “serve [them] in any way.”
13. BOWING TO PARENTS
Bringing back bowing as a formal greeting would undoubtedly help us all feel like sophisticated ladies and gentlemen. And encouraging little kids to bow to their parents just sounds plain adorable. That’s exactly what one 1856 children’s etiquette book recommended, telling their young readers, “If you pass by your parents at any place, where you see them, either by themselves or with company, always bow to them.”
14. OFFERING GUESTS A BATH
While we’ve focused primarily on the forgotten niceties of the 19th and early 20th centuries, this one comes to us across the millennia: In Ancient Greece it was considered rude not to offer guests a bath and clean clothes as soon as they arrived for a visit. Today, that rule makes little sense for a friend who’s just come to visit from down the street, but it’s a nice custom for friends or family visiting from afar.
Nowadays, we usually only give gifts on birthdays and holidays—but back in the day, gift-giving was much more common. One 1921 book of etiquette recommended sending a small gift after any party or gathering hosted at someone’s home. “After the visit the guest may send some little gift in appreciation of the hospitality enjoyed,” the book explains. “A bit of household linen, a book, flowers, or candy are most appropriate.”