Politeness has been defined as an “artificial good-nature;” but it would be better said that good-nature is natural politeness. It inspires us with an unremitting attention, both to please others and to avoid giving them offense. Its code is a ceremonial, agreed upon and established among mankind, to give each other external testimonies of friendship or respect. Politeness and etiquette form a sort of supplement to the law, which enables society to protect itself against offenses which the law cannot touch. For instance, the law cannot punish a man for habitually staring at people in an insolent and annoying manner, but etiquette can banish such an offender from the circles of good society, and fix upon him the brand of vulgarity. Etiquette consists in certain forms, ceremonies, and rules which the principle of politeness establishes and enforces for the regulation of the manners of men and women in their intercourse with each other.
Many unthinking persons consider the observance of etiquette to be nonsensical and unfriendly, as consisting of unmeaning forms, practiced only by the silly and the idle; an opinion which arises from their not having reflected on the reasons that have led to the establishment of certain rules indispensable to the well-being of society, and without which, indeed, it would inevitably fall to pieces, and be destroyed.
The true aim of politeness, is to make those with whom you associate as well satisfied with themselves as possible. It does not, by any means, encourage an impudent self-importance in them, but it does whatever it can to accommodate their feelings and wishes in social intercourse. Politeness is a sort of social benevolence, which avoids wounding the pride, or shocking the prejudices of those around you.
The principle of politeness is the same among all nations, but the ceremonials which etiquette imposes differ according to the taste and habits of various countries. For instance, many of the minor rules of etiquette at Paris differ from those at London; and at New York they may differ from both Paris and London. But still the polite of every country have about the same manners.
Of the manners and deportment of both ladies and gentlemen, we would remark that a proper consideration for the welfare and comfort of others will generally lead to a greater propriety of demeanor than any rules which the most rigid master of etiquette could supply. This feeling, however, is one that must be cultivated, for the promptings of nature are eminently selfish, and courtesy and good-breeding are only attainable by effort and discipline. But even courtesy has limits where dignity should govern it, for when carried to excess, particularly in manner, it borders on sycophancy, which is almost as despicable as rudeness. To overburden people with attention; to render them uncomfortable with a prodigality of proffered services; to insist upon obligations which they do not desire, is not only to render yourself disagreeable, but contemptible. This defect of manners is particularly prevalent in the rural districts, where the intense effort to render a visitor comfortable has exactly the contrary effect; besides, there are those whose want of refinement and good breeding often leads them to an unwarrantable familiarity, which requires coldness and indifference to subdue.
Much misconstruction and unpleasant feeling arises, especially in country towns, from not knowing what is “expected,” or necessary to be done on certain occasions, resulting sometimes from the prevalence of local customs, with which the world in general are not supposed to be acquainted. “To do in Rome as the Romans do,” applies to every kind of society. At the same time, you can never be expected to commit a serious breach of manners because your neighbors do so.
But what you should do, and what not, in particular cases, you will learn in the following chapters. I have only now to say, that if you wish to be agreeable, which is certainly a good and religious desire, you must both study how to be so, and take the trouble to put your studies into constant practice. The fruit you will soon reap. You will be generally liked and loved. The gratitude of those to whom you have devoted yourself will be shown in speaking well of you; you will become a desirable addition to every party, and whatever your birth, fortune, or position, people will say of you, “He is a most agreeable and well-bred man,” and be glad to introduce you to good society. But you will reap a yet better reward. You will have in yourself the satisfaction of having taken trouble and made sacrifices in order to give pleasure and happiness for the time to others. How do you know what grief or care you may not obliterate, what humiliation you may not alter to confidence, what anxiety you may not soften, wha t— last, but really not least — what intense dullness you may not enliven? If this work assist you in becoming an agreeable member of good society, I shall rejoice at the labor it has given me.