In Jane Austen’s time great emphasis was placed on good manners. For the upper classes, proper etiquette (along with money and property) was what helped distinguish the rich and well bred from everyone else.
In our world, it’s good manners to walk up to someone at a social gathering and introduce yourself and strike up a conversation. Not so in Jane Austen’s day. Then there were all sorts of rules about when, how, and in what order one person could be introduced to another.
That’s why Mrs. Bennet was in such a tizzy at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice when her husband would not call on Mr. Bingley.
It’s also the reason Elizabeth Bennet was scandalized when Mr. Collins decided to introduce himself to Mr. Darcy.
Once people were introduced to each other, they were bound by the rules of etiquette to call upon each other, greet each other in public, and include each other in their social functions.
If you saw someone you knew at a distance, you were expected to nod. (A lady never called out to an acquaintance or waived, as Lydia Bennet did. It was gauche.)
In fact, nodding was a common courtesy that required a nod in response.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those Regency era gestures of politeness and good manners, and I wouldn’t mind if one or two of them came back into fashion.
I particularly like the courtesy of nodding. Here’s why: I enjoy taking daily walks at a nearby park. There’s an unwritten code among walkers, which is, when you pass another walker, you say, hello.
Or, you can say, good morning. Or, you just smile and wave. Or, you can nod.
No matter how you choose to do it, you acknowledge the other walker. I’m a card-carrying introvert, but even I can pull of a smile and a nod with style. In fact, I enjoy this small gesture of civility.
But there are people who don’t abide by the rule. There’s one young woman I see on a fairly regular basis while I’m making my laps around the park. She walks an adorable little Yorkie, but when she sees me or any another walker coming toward her, she immediately pulls her cell phone out of her pocket and looks down at it. Every time.
It’s not a big deal, but it does make me wonder if she knows about the code of etiquette for walkers.
To be clear, I don’t want to go back in time and live during the Regency period; I’m much too fond of Google searches, Hagen Das, and the gains we’ve made in women’s rights since then.
But sometimes I think I wouldn’t mind if, every once in a while, we all harkened back to some of those old rules of etiquette and used them in our everyday lives today.
What Austen-era bit of etiquette do you wish were still practiced today?