You finish dinner and let out a tiny, digestive burp. Or perhaps you sit down in a chair and lean your back against it. You could simply be standing around with your arms at your sides. Each of these behaviors – and many of your other everyday activities – break etiquette rules of societies past. We’re not talking about ancient codes of conduct, either. Some of these expectations come from mere decades ago. Want to know how you would’ve caused yourself and your family social ruin? These are 40 of the weirdest ways to have done it…
40. Heavy-handed cologne application could spell trouble
In the Victorian era – which lasted from the late 1830s until the turn of the 20th century – etiquette rules covered behavior right down to the amount of cologne that men used. Comportment experts advised men to put on as little of their scent of choice as possible. To be honest, we have to agree that there is a such thing as too much aftershave – nowadays, though, you won’t be shunned socially for overdoing it.
39. Dinner party conversation? That’ll be to your right
The Victorians loved dinner parties, but conversation didn’t always cross the table. The fanciest of fetes would revolve around a ten-course meal. And as dinner guests awaited the appearance serving staff bearing their food, the men could only talk to the women sitting to their right.
38. Bridesmaids had to be wrinkle-free – and we’re not talking about the dress
Nowadays, anyone can be part of a bridal party, but the Victorians had much more stringent stipulations for their bridesmaids – of course. An etiquette handbook found in the era’s Town and Country magazine said that a young bride had to have maids to match. So, someone with wrinkles couldn’t stand next to a smooth-faced woman.
37. Don’t smile on the street
Here’s a turn-of-the-20th-century etiquette rule that applied to ladies only. They could go for strolls outdoors, but laughing with their friends and having fun? That wasn’t advised. Instead, they were expected to keep things subdued and modest – they had to save their personalities until they were back behind closed doors.
36. No reclining for weary women
In 1922’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, Emily Post delineated all of the ways a woman shouldn’t sit down. She believed that too much back support was a bad thing. Post wrote, “Everyone, of course, leans against a chair back… but a lady should never throw herself almost at full length in a reclining chair or on a wide sofa when she is out in public.”
35. There’s a limit to karaoke, you know
Now, the singing at a Victorian party would be very different to people bursting into song at a modern-day soiree. And yes, it’s no surprise to learn that there were rules about just how many classical tunes a woman could belt at a gathering 200 years ago. She was supposed to step out of the spotlight after “one or two songs,” according to A Hand-Book of Etiquette for Ladies.
34. Talk about anything but yourself
A Hand-Book of Etiquette for Ladies advised women to watch how much they talked about themselves – plainly, it said they shouldn’t ever do it. It read, “Never introduce your own affairs for the amusement of the company; such discussions cannot be interesting to others, and the probability is that the most patient listener is laying the foundation for some tale to make you appear ridiculous.”
33. Cough into the left hand only
Let’s jump ahead about 100 years or so and cover this strange 1960s etiquette rule. Back then, behavior experts advised people to think of their right hand as their social one, while the left was for personal use. So, they would shake hands with the right and cough into the left. It’s hygienic, but it’s also weird.
32. A third wheel could come on your honeymoon
Honeymoon romance? The Victorians were having none of that. Instead, they thought it was okay for women to invite a friend with them on their first trip as a married couple. As much fun as a girl’s trip is, it might be better that we separate romantic getaways from our friendlier travels.
31. Attract a man by buying yourself flowers
A late 1930s magazine called Mademoiselle divulged to its college-bound female readership how they could make themselves desirable to their male classmates. Firstly, they could have their moms send them flowers anonymously so the guys would think other fellows were interested. The same piece also suggested that women turn off their lights at night or on weekends – even if they were home – so it appeared they were booked and busy.
30. Arriving on time? That’s rude.
Nowadays, if you get a party invitation, you show up at the time shown on the card. In the Victorian era, though, the host would set the time, but no one would show up then. Instead, guests knew to arrive 15 minutes late to every single soiree, and they’d relax in the drawing room until dinner was ready.
29. No such thing as an Irish goodbye
If you’ve ever left a party without bidding your host and fellow guests adieu, well, you’ve performed an Irish goodbye. You might get away with it nowadays, but you would have been socially shunned for such an act in Victorian times. Partygoers had to show their gratitude to the person throwing the party, no matter how badly they wanted to go home.
28. Eat everything one bite at a time
Nowadays, if we want to eat fast, well, we do. But in the 1950s and ’60s, scarfing down a meal was not the appropriate means to an end. Diners had to chew one forkful at a time, since etiquette experts said that chomping on extra-large mouthfuls was improper behavior.
27. Are you ready to order, sir?
Imagine going out to a restaurant, perusing the menu, choosing what you wanted to eat… And then having someone else order your meal for you. That was the reality for women in the 1950s, when it was customary for the man to tell the waiter what food to bring.
26. Don’t touch me… Unless I’m about to walk into a puddle
It should come as no surprise that there were lots of rules for those who wanted to date in the Victorian era. Courting couples had to walk with distance between them. A man could only extend his arm to a high-society woman if she was about to fall foul of an unseen puddle. We imagine lots of pairs headed for waterlogged pathways just so they could share a little moment.
25. Male visitors had to make it clear they were leaving
For all of their etiquette rules and obsession with appearances, the Victorians had no desire to fake it when they had guests – they usually wanted them leaving as quickly as possible. That’s why men had to make it clear that they planned to do just that. They would come to visit friends with their hats and riding whips in hand to show that they’d be on their way fast. Today’s man would need to hold onto his coat, house keys, smartphone, wallet, sunglasses…
24. Any old handshake won’t do
Reaching out a hand to greet someone wasn’t enough in the 1960s. Instead, you had to make sure your hand hovered at elbow level and met your handshaking partner’s in the middle of the space between you. Beyond that, etiquette rules advised shakers to keep the move quick and firm – get it out of the way and get onto business.
23. Don’t dance with a man unless you have been formally introduced
Today we have clubs full of people where strangers boogie until the wee hours of the morning. A Victorian-era party would never go down this way. An interested man would have to have had a formal introduction to a woman – and earned the approval of her family – before they could dance together at a soiree.
22. Only a party’s host could serve the meal
When attending a dinner party, you might like to get up and help the host with their duties. In the 1950s, though, such an action would not fly. Instead, the party-thrower had to handle dinner service all on their own – specifically, they had to carve and serve the meat. They could sit down and relax if they had a maid to handle the job, but no guests could reach for the knife.
21. Ladies first… Except when walking into a dark room
This etiquette rule comes from a more modern era – that said, it’s still roughly six decades old. Men in the 1960s were expected to be brave for the ladies in their charge. So, if the two walked into a dark room, the guy had to go first, presumably to protect her from whatever might be lurking inside.
20. Women, walk on the left – I need my sword arm free
This etiquette rule has existed since medieval times, when men habitually carried blades. They needed their sword arm – the one on the right – free in case they had to fight. So, they always escorted women on their left-hand side. The rule still exists today, although it’s not as commonly observed as it was in the 1950s.
19. Pregnant women shouldn’t travel, like, anywhere
Today’s moms-to-be can hop on planes and trek to far-flung destinations well into their pregnancies. Almost a century ago, though, expecting women didn’t have the luxury of going anywhere – seriously, anywhere. People saw it as improper for women to travel, even by car, while they were with child.
18. A lady’s hair had to be up at (almost) all times
Victorian-era women had to look their best around the clock – their husbands expected non-stop finesse. So, they kept their tresses in polished updos, which they wore in public as well as in the house. The only place they could literally let their hair down? In their bedrooms, and that was it.
17. Bling is not an appropriate gift
If you love jewelry – and receiving it as a gift, especially – then you should be happy to live in the 21st century. Victorian women couldn’t accept baubles as presents, unless they came from a family member or husband. Otherwise, the only greenlit gifts a single girl could receive were flowers, sheet music, sweets or books.
16. Never ask how someone’s doing
“How are you?” It’s polite small talk today, but, in the Victorian era? You’d be seen as rude for asking this or indeed any other direct question. Instead, the politest of conversations wouldn’t inquire about a person’s feelings. Instead, they’d say something like, “I hope you are well.”
15. If you break something at someone else’s house, completely ignore it
Some Victorian-era etiquette rules make absolutely no sense, considering how prim and proper they seemed to be. Take this one as a prime example. Apparently, if you were visiting someone and broke something in their house, it would be wrong to acknowledge what you did. Your host would be equally as out of line to point out your mistake, too – they were meant to act like it was no big deal.
14. Did your boyfriend get you a gift? Time to hand-make something in return
We’ve already touched on the gifts that women couldn’t accept. Now, let’s talk about the presents they couldn’t give in return. Interestingly, she would be expected to reciprocate with something handmade, budget-friendly or both. And she couldn’t be the one to start a gift exchange – the guy had to be the one to buy first.
13. Holding your liquor wouldn’t be an asset
Vogue magazine’s 1948 Book of Etiquette had a lot to say about women who could drink – and none of it was nice. The guide read, “‘She can certainly hold her liquor’ is not a compliment.” So, it would be better to wobble around after a single drink?
12. Never speak to a smoking man
A Victorian-era gentleman would never light up in front of a woman. But it would also be rude if a lady tried to strike up a conversation with a man who had already lit his tobacco-of-choice. That’s because he’d have to put out the cigar and waste it, and no guy would be happy about that.
11. You’d be rude if you didn’t have a cigarette
Sixty-ish years ago, so many people smoked cigarettes that you were simply expected to have them on you – yes, even if you didn’t actually smoke. Men tended to carry lighters with them, too, since they’d be seen as rude for not lighting a lady’s cig for her.
10. Shiny hair starts with excessive brushing
Before the days of dry shampoo or leave-in conditioner or long-lasting blowouts, there was hair-brushing. And, as far as haircare wisdom went in the 1940s, women needed to comb their tresses at least 100 times each night to maintain their shiny locks. In fact, they were advised to do so until the skin underneath started to prickle, which almost sounds like a bad thing to us…
9. Don’t shovel your salad
Etiquette expert Bernice Morgan Bryant wrote in Future Perfect, her 1944 guidebook, that you couldn’t just heave your salad straight into your mouth. Instead, she recommended, “Try first to cut your salad with your fork. If you find it difficult, calmly pick up your knife and use it.”
8. Pretending not to see someone on the street was the ultimate social offense
Cassell’s Household Guide hit bookstores in 1869, and it outlined the ins and outs of Victorian life – so, of course, it contained all of the social dos and don’ts. The book described the so-called act of “cutting” – not acknowledging someone you knew if you saw them on the street – as “the most ill-mannered act possible to commit in society.” Let’s face it: we’ve definitely all done this in the 21st century with no repercussions.
7. Pass the salt… And the pepper, I guess
Diners in the 1940s took their salt-and-pepper sets very seriously. They felt the two should never be separated on the table. So, if someone asked for the salt, then you’d have to pass them both the shaker they asked for and the pepper. Seems like a pain for the person who just needed one.
6. Burping in public could be the end of your social life
In some places, such as Taiwan or China, a post-meal belch is a huge compliment to the chef. Victorian-era diners would be mortified to know this information, since they scoffed at even the quietest of burps or the discreetest passage of gas. According to Reader’s Digest magazine, one slip “could mean social ruin.” It was that serious.
5. Smile! No one can see you, but, still.
We’ll try and give 1940s etiquette expert Bryant a bit of a break, considering phones were a new technology back then. Still, it seems a bit silly now to think that she advised people to smile while they spoke on the device. If only she could see us grumpily staring at our smartphones now…
4. Slice your asparagus, then eat it
Brits introduced asparagus as a finger food, but, by the time the 1950s rolled around, etiquette experts had a different idea. The 1975 update of Post’s 1922 book, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, explained why. She said that slicing the veggie meant you’d avoid “the ungraceful appearance of a bent stalk of asparagus falling limply into someone’s mouth and the fact that moisture is also likely to drip from the end.”
3. The horror of holding your dress improperly
After reading that headline, you’re probably envisioning some kind of horrible wardrobe malfunction where a dress gets tangled up and exposes a lady’s legs. Turns out, we’re talking about a 19th-century rule that dictated how women could hold their gowns to make it easier to walk. They absolutely couldn’t do the job with two hands – instead, they had to lift the skirt with their right hand only, a method that exposed just the right amount of ankle.
2. Don’t do the dead fish
Imagine having to worry about how your hands dangle when you stand still. This was the plight of a 1950s woman, who had a slew of instructional materials telling her how to do everything – including how to hold her arms. The “dead fish hands” pose was the one to skip, and it’s one we all do every day with our limbs parallel to the sides of our bodies. Back then, though, people thought it did little to accentuate a woman’s shapely curves.
1. Only one glass of Champagne allowed
By Victorian standards, a woman would accept a glass of Champagne – and that was it. She couldn’t have more than a single flute of fizz, or else her peers would see her as improper. We think we’ll stick to our 21st-century rule on this one, which is to drink as much bubbly as your heart desires. Cheers!