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Rules Without Reason Equals Rebellion: A History Lesson

“Rules without reason equals rebellion.” -Cynthia Grosso, Charleston School of Protocol. This could be my motto! I have a stubborn streak that can serve me well, but when it gets me into trouble, I just blame it on my DNA. No matter the reason, I am not the best rule follower unless I know why a rule was created.

I believe in manners, etiquette, and protocol, but today I feel these guidelines should come from a place of commonsense. Having good manners is not about following a bunch of rules. It is about showing kindness to others and making sure those in our presence are comfortable. Knowing the ins and outs of etiquette, though, can save all of us a great deal of heartache when interacting with others. Why? Because understanding protocol helps us stay within the boundaries of good manners.

Through years of research, I have concluded most guidelines were created, at some point in history, for a reasonable purpose. I enjoy knowing the “why” as it aids me in remembering what I am to do in different situations. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to answer seven of the most frequent questions I receive when it comes to etiquette (otherwise known as soft skills).

Why do we set the table with the knife blade turned in?

When eating a meal, we are taught to put our utensils in the resting position between bites. The resting position for the knife is at a diagonal at the top right of the plate, with the sharp side of the blade turned toward ourselves. This rule dates to medieval days when utensils were rare. This period of history 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) 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 one above. During this same period in history, you never knew when you might encounter someone that intended you harm. When two men approached, they would stretch out their right hand and grasp forearms. Most males wore a sword, and this sword was worn on the left hip. This allowed a right-handed man to easily draw his weapon from the left side of his body. But if two men were holding each other’s right arms in greeting, this would render that arm useless. Neither would be able to draw his sword. When encountering another person, grabbing arms became a way of saying hello and stating in unspoken words, “I come in peace.” Today, we continue this tradition 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?

When a knight wore his armor, his face could not be seen. We learn much about a person by looking into their eyes, and keeping eyes hidden allows for secrecy. To show he meant no harm when encountering another person, a knight would raise his face covering to reveal his eyes and face. By showing his identity, this communicated he came in peace. This act of courtesy also 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 arm movement a knight used when raising his face shield. Pretend you are wearing a knight’s helmet, and mimic raising the visor to reveal your eyes. As you can see, you have just performed the modern military salute. The tipping of a civilian hat is a historical progression of the knight raising his visor and the soldier saluting, and 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 his right side, 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 positioned 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 filthier you became from all the grime and dust kicked up by the animals. The man served as a buffer to protect the woman.

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 it also served to catch dirt and dust that was airborne during the industrial times. Remember old Western movies where a cowboy would walk into a saloon, and with dramatic fashion knock dirt off from the brim of his hat? The reason men removed their hat indoors was for the simple reason, they were filthy! If worn at the dinner table, the dirt might fall into the food. Therefore, as soon as he stepped into an establishment, he removed his hat and placed it on a rack. It is no different today when we carry a wet umbrella inside a restaurant. Most eateries will have a place for us to deposit our 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 current etiquette? 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, so guests kept their arms close to the vest. It was considered bad manners to prop your elbows on the table and infringe on another person’s 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 where dining etiquette was displayed at its best. Every person sat perfectly straight in their chair. In summary, the rule of elbows off the table was created for two reasons: to protect each person’s table space, and to help maintain good posture.

Together with you,

Lisa Lou


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