When William of Wykeham, then- Chancellor of England, decreed in the 14th century that ‘Manners maketh man’ would be the perfect motto for Winchester College, he probably had an inkling his pithy aphorism would remain pertinent for centuries to come. And the wily wordsmith would have been right.
Proper decorum remains today the personification of masculinity at its least boorish; from Wykeham himself through to Cary Grant and George Clooney, via the likes of Giovanni della Casa – the 16th- century poet and author of the treatise on manners, Il Galateo – the social situations a man confronts daily may have changed over the years, but the basic tenets of gracious behaviour are set in stone.
Not that human advancement hasn’t abraded the edifice of etiquette over time. Indeed, our recent relentless techno-cultural advance sometimes seems to resemble the proverbial hare in the censorious fable, rushing ahead too fast for the sociological tortoise to keep up: What becomes of a self-respecting gent’s natural penchant for elegant diction, when all around are ‘try’n 2 trsh it’ asap? Is a thank-you note stripped of its sincerity and impact when clicked to the recipient down a wire?
And what of cultural developments such as feminism and the blurring of lines between classes? The quandaries thrown up by these will be dealt with as this series on gentlemen’s conduct goes on. Meanwhile, it seems appropriate – as a reminder for those who need it, and simply for the sake of celebration for those who don’t – to raise a toast to the five timeless Pillars of Gentlemen’s Etiquette.
This is an abstract, intangible beast. Il Galateo author Giovanni della Casa had clearly worked out that some men are impervious to the notion of grace when he advised, ‘After you’re done blowing your nose, don’t open your handkerchief and look in it, as if expecting pearls or rubies to have cascaded into it from your brain.’
Scrutinising a soiled tissue is a fairly obvious faux pas for modern men, just as holding a knife and fork incorrectly makes one resemble a ravenous caveman attacking mammoth flesh. But some of the subtler nuances of grace are more elusive – and all self-respecting gentlemen owe it to themselves to instil these into their behavioural programming. We’re talking about subtleties such as the warm smile that accompanies a firm handshake; the straightening of cutlery at the end of a meal; and the adoption of a posture, in any social situation, that is alert and yet relaxed.
Della Casa has lots to say about a man’s individual dignity in a court-holding scenario. ‘If you’re going to tell a story, make sure you’ve got it straight in your head beforehand, and don’t torture the listeners with irrelevant details,’ he says and adds, ‘Don’t laugh like an imbecile at your own jokes.’
But there is also the dignity of others to think about here: under this falls not interrupting speakers, listening carefully to what others have to say and treating their opinions seriously, however outlandish they may be.
At its best, dignity, like respect, has a symbiotic social effect. How dignified an act of selfless social lubrication is the common garden introduction? And how corrosive it is to the social cachet of all involved when a host fails to formally (but not too formally) harvest connections between the socially unacquainted at a gathering. Gentlemen, in fact, should jump at the opportunity to introduce people to each other – it’s an opportunity to display poise, wit and confidence, while doing a service to those in your company. What could be more timeless?