DECORUM AND STYLE
An Elucidation For The Perplexed
by Sam Hane #28778
© copyright 1993 W.J. Bethancourt III
Revised Version © copyright 2001 W.J. Bethancourt III
While one might think that the Old West was a place of no manners and little education, in fact the reverse was true. In the Ante-Bellum / Victorian Age, manners became of such importance that many books of etiquette were published, and enjoyed brisk sales even on the frontier. They were popular enough that Mark Twain even wrote a satire on them, which unfortunately was never published.
Proper behaviour was especially important to the many displaced Southerners who roamed the West, as many of them had been raised to "Southern manners."
Therefore the proper forms of society would be observed by any who aspired to be known as "high class," and might even be a good bit exaggerated by those who were social climbing ....
Hand-kissing is a wonderful means of greeting a lady. It is a delightful custom of etiquette that is too often not done, done wrongly, or completely misunderstood. Hopefully, this short article will help those who wish to behave as "proper society" do it correctly.
The FIRST thing the gentleman must do is remove his hat. One can do it simply, or one may remove it with a sweep across the body accompanied by a slight bow. (A simple inclination of the head will suffice here.) A gentleman would normally do this with his left hand, unless there are special circumstances (see below).
Remember: one always has the option of simply shaking the lady's hand .... gently, please! This is the generally appropriate social response, and would be far more common in Victorian America than hand-kissing. The lady may "cue" the gentleman as to what she expects by offering her hand with the thumb up, for a handshake, or with the knuckles up to be kissed.
Let us establish FIRMLY that one kisses the hand in only two social situations:
- If you already know the lady, and she offers her hand to be kissed, or
- If you are being introduced to her, and she offers her hand to be kissed.
Note that it is NOT the part of the gentleman to initiate the kissing of the hand. The lady MUST indicate, clearly, that the hand-kiss is welcome and expected.
DO NOT run around grabbing any lady's hand and kissing it at random. They might just eviscerate you on the spot, and any person witnessing said evisceration will only point and laugh at your social faux pas. Or help out by handing the lady a dull knife or two .... if she offers her hand to be kissed, kiss it. If not, DON'T!
(You can "cue" her to offer her hand by extending yours. Be prepared, however, to convert the extension into a flourish of your bow, or a handshake, to avoid the embarrassment of standing there with your hand out looking like a beggar asking for alms ....)
Period books of (American) etiquette state that not removing one's gloves by the gentleman is perfectly proper. If your character is European, however, the gentleman would remove the glove from the hand that takes the lady's. It would also, incidentally, be quite proper for a right-handed Shootist to take the lady's hand in his left hand (placing his hat under his left arm, of course) to keep his "working" hand free, but the usual practice is to use the right hand to take her left.
Don't grab the hand. Take it as gently as a butterfly's kiss, and try to merely support it on your own, not hold it in a death-grip.
There are several degrees of hand-kissing:
- With -dry lips-, bow slightly over the hand in a courtly manner. Do NOT touch the hand with your lips. This is correct when first introduced, and is always correct in any situation.
- With -dry lips-, bow as above, and kiss the back of the hand, GENTLY. This is correct if you know the lady already. It is NOT correct if you have not been introduced previously.
The above two forms are the generally accepted means of hand-kissing. There are other forms, but they are not accepted in polite society in the English-speaking world.
Notice that I have always specified "dry." Slobbering is Not Done.
The practice of sucking on fingers is gauché, and the business of kissing the hand, and continuing the kisses up the arm is simply stupid, or good as a comedic turn. Clicking the heels as one kisses her hand is period, but would only be found in Prussia and perhaps France among the military. (British military do not click their heels on parade, but rather "stamp" them. This would of course be unsuitable for greeting a lady.)
On withdrawing from her company, one may kiss the hand -if it is offered-. If the lady offers her cheek, kiss it as in (2) above, gently and with - dry- lips. This is a HIGH compliment from her, unless it is your Mother or Maiden Aunt, when it would be entirely appropriate and usual.
Hand-kissing is an art form, and should be used along with courtly bows, tipping of one's hat, and all the rest of the "bells and whistles" that go with Victorian gentlemanly behaviour.
But .... tread lightly! When you kiss a lady's hand, you go where even angels fear to tread.
And: NEVER EVER force your attentions on the lady in ANY manner. Such an action is the mark of an uncultured boor, and places you in the category of "waste of food and air on an overcrowded target range." Remember that in many accounts of the Old West it was repeated over and over again that, while the mens' manners might have not been suitable in the Victorian drawing room, they NEVER behaved badly towards or in the company of a lady. EVER.
We can expect those of us in SASS to remember the "Cowboy Way," and behave accordingly.
And, since the subject was mentioned, a few words about tipping (or taking off) one's hat:
Removal of the hat outdoors and indoors is expected in the following places and social situations:
- On being introduced or saying goodbye to a lady, or speaking with a lady, older person or clergyman
- To salute the flag or national anthem
- When dining (other than a lunch counter)
- When dancing
- Indoors (unless it is a public place)
- When walking on the street and a funeral cortege passes
- A place of worship or mortuary (unless it is Jewish)
- At any theatrical performance
- At prayer (unless you are Jewish)
- When speaking to another of a virtuous woman or a dearly departed loved one.
Indoors, a man should always remove his hat, (particularly in a home, church, court room or restaurant) except:
- If you are a lady
- If you are a soldier "under arms"
- In public buildings or public places such as railroad stations or post offices;
- In the main parlor area of a saloon or general store;
- Or while seated at the "lunch counter" of a diner or cafe;
- In entrance halls and corridors of office buildings, or hotels;
- In elevators of public or office buildings, unless a woman is present;
- If carrying packages, parcels or bags and both hands are occupied upon entry.
Tipping of the hat:
- On greeting an aquaintance of the fairer sex.
- When walking with a friend who passes a woman only the friend knows;
- Any time a lady who is a stranger thanks you for some service or assistance;
- Any time you excuse yourself to a woman stranger, such as if you accidentally disturb or jostle her in a crowd, or when you ask for pardon when passing in a tight space or when forced to walk between two people that are conversing, particularly if one is a woman;
- Any time a stranger shows courtesy to a woman you are accompanying, such as when a man or woman picks up something she has dropped, or a man opens a door for her or gives her his seat;
- When you ask a woman (or an elderly man) for directions.
If in doubt, it is best for a gentleman to remove his hat indoors as soon as practical. It is considered a sign of contempt and/or disrespect to leave your hat on when it would be proper to remove it.
Sam Hane was educated at the University of Heidelburg and Miskatonic University and his current place of residence is in the Arizona Territory.