Etiquette is essentially a veneer,a gloss of cosmetic excellence.

Etiquette is essentially a veneer, a gloss of cosmetic excellence. It is a subject that prompts tittering on two counts: some of us titter at other people's faux pas, and some of us titter at the very idea of such finishing-school flummery.

Punctilious etiquette is nothing without humanity: "Why should we not cultivate and encourage in ourselves consideration, thoughtfulness, and graciousness towards others in the smallest details of daily life? Because of the Victorian and neo-Victorian meticulousness about cementing conventions and inventing traditions we are apt to think of manners as a minefield – and as cumbrous or expendable. Yet really manners are something else.

The philosopher David Hume defined them as "a kind of lesser morality, calculated for the ease of company and conversation" and spoke of the "companionable virtues of good manners and wit, decency and genteelness". In other words, these are virtues that sit well together and enable us to sit well together. They are not a form of self-abnegation, but instead lubricants of sociability.

It was in the 19th century that a fixation with etiquette supplanted a more nuanced concern with underlying qualities – that having "good manners" came to be a matter of skin-deep sophistication and avoiding pitfalls. The inspiration for this was Lord Chesterfield, the politician and diplomat whose letters to his illegitimate son Philip served as a kind of how-to guide for those cynically bent on self-advancement. Chesterfield introduced the word "etiquette" into everyday English. In French it signified a ticket or label – possibly a ticket showing a courtier where to sit at a ceremony, or a soldier's billet annotated with instructions. Chesterfield adopted it, though, as if it meant "small ethics". A minuscule ethics, that is, within which he could say both that dancing is "a very trifling, silly thing" and that "It is very proper and decent to dance well".

In the 19th century, the term became a touchstone of the socially mobile and the socially anxious. Look at Victorian guides to etiquette and you find an array of urgent prescriptions. Curious readers will learn that a lady's visiting card should be three-and-five-eighths inches wide, and that when crossing the road she shouldn't raise her dress with both hands, lest she show too much ankle. Or, from a volume with the title Manners and Rules of Good Society, written by "a member of the aristocracy", that "jellies, blancmanges, ice puddings, etc., should be eaten with a fork, as should be all sweets sufficiently substantial to admit of it".

A personal favourite among these guides, proscriptive rather than prescriptive, is Oliver Bell Bunce's Don't: A Manual of Mistakes and Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech (1883). Bunce's rules range from the straightforward ("Don't smoke in the street") via the unhelpfully vague ("Don't be over-civil") to those that are just unhelpful ("Don't speak ungrammatically"). Even at their most lucid, prohibitions of this type are not very effective, especially in the short term – but in any case this is a canon in which manners are divorced from morality and indeed from any kind of rationale. When Victorians spoke of "manners and morals", as they often did, they imagined a continuum where in fact there had lately been disjunction.

Etiquette is worthless without humanity. But some rules are socially useful and help us reconnect 'correct' behaviour with decency.

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