Rules Without Reason Equals Rebellion
Updated: May 3
“Rules without reason equals rebellion.” -Cynthia Grosso, Charleston School of Protocol. This could be my motto! I have a stubborn streak that serves me well, and when it gets me into trouble, I blame it on my DNA. No matter the reason, I find I am not the best rule follower unless I know why a rule was created.
I believe in manners, etiquette, and protocol, but in our more modern society, I feel these guidelines should come from a place of commonsense. Good manners mean making sure those around you are comfortable. It is not about following rules. Knowing the etiquette playbook, though, can save all of us a great deal of heartache when interacting with others. Learning good protocol helps us stay within the boundaries of good manners.
Through much research, I have concluded most guidelines have a purpose. Knowing the “why” also aids me in remembering what I am to do in different situations. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to answer 7 of the most common questions I have received regarding social practices.
Why do knife blades point in?
When eating a meal, we are taught to put our utensils down between bites with the sharp side of the blade in the resting position and pointing towards us. This rule dates to medieval days when utensils were rare. This period was hostile and when men gathered around a table there was uncertainty as to who was friend and who was foe. Carrying a weapon was common, and these weapons (usually a knife of some type) would sometimes be used to carve food. Pointing a sharp blade toward another person was considered a sign of aggression. To show you meant no harm, if your weapon was used at the dinner table, you made sure to point the sharp side of the blade toward yourself. This is the reason we turn our dinner blade inward.
Why do we shake with our right hand, and why is it a sign of greeting?
This answer dovetails with the answer above. During this same period in history, you never knew when you might encounter someone that intended to do you harm. When two men approached, they would stretch out their right hand and grasp each other’s forearm. Most males wore a sword, and this sword was worn on the left hip. This allowed a right-handed man to easily draw his sword from the left side of his body. Imagine if, upon greeting, two men were grasping each other’s right arms, this would render that arm useless. Neither man would be able to draw his sword. When encountering another person, grabbing arms became a way of greeting and to state in unspoken words, “I come in peace.” Today, we continue this tradition of greeting by shaking hands, and we use our right hand for the simple reason that most of the world is right-handed.
Why does a man tip his hat?
Again, we are dealing with the same time-period. When a knight wore his armor, you could not see his face. We learn much about a person by looking into their eyes, and keeping the eyes hidden allows for secrecy (thus the reason some poker players wear sunglasses during a game). A knight, to show he meant no harm, would raise the visor on his helmet when greeting another person to reveal his eyes and face. By showing his identity, this communicated he came in peace. This act of courtesy became a sign of greeting. The same gesture moved into military ranks in future centuries. The hand movement a soldier uses to salute replicates the same formation a knight used when raising his face shield. Pretend you are wearing a knight’s helmet, and mimic raising the visor to allow someone else to see your eyes. As you can see, you have just performed the modern military salute. The tipping of a civilian hat is a historical progression from the knight raising his visor and the soldier saluting. It is a sign of greeting.
Why were women taught to walk on the right side of a man?
As we have learned, most men wore their swords on their left hip. By having the woman walk on the right side of a man, she did not need to worry about bumping into his sword. And, if the man needed to quickly draw his sword, the woman’s body would not interfere if she were stationed to his right.
Why did men walk between a woman and the street?
It was for protection from dirt. Imagine the horse and buggy days. The closer you were to the street, the dirtier you became. The man served as a buffer to the woman from all the grime caused by these transportation vehicles.
Why did men take their hats off indoors?
Until recent history, men wore hats daily. A head covering would protect from the cold and keep the sun out of the eyes, but they also served to catch dirt and dust that was airborne during the industrial times. Remember the old Western movies where the cowboy walks into the saloon, takes off his hat, and proceeds to brush the dirt from his head covering? The reason men removed their hat indoors was for the simple reason…they were filthy! No one wanted this dirty piece of clothing at the dinner table where the grime could contaminate the food or fall onto other guests. Once inside, a man immediately removed his hat and placed it on a rack. It is no different today when we carry a wet umbrella inside an establishment. Most restaurants will have a container for you to deposit the wet gear, so puddles do not gather throughout. I am often asked if men should still remove their hats today when stepping inside. The short answer, yes.
Keep your elbows off the table
Are you seeing a pattern to the origin of much of our etiquette? Yep. Those medieval ancestors gave us a lot of rules, but they made sense. Here is another one. Kings would host massive banquets. There were long tables and benches filling the halls of the aristocracy. Space was an expensive commodity at these big slabs of wood, so the invited guests kept their arms close to the vest (so to speak). It was considered bad manners to prop your elbows on the table and infringe on another person’s small territory. In later history (and during the English and French eras where many of our modern etiquette rules were created) putting elbows on the table was considered a trait of the low-born, because it caused a person to slouch. Think about the Downton Abbey episodes we watched where dining etiquette was displayed at its best. Every guest sat straight up in their chair. In summary, the rule of elbows off the table was created for two reasons: do not infringe on another’s space and have good posture.
Together with you,