Nowadays, they’re just considered good manners, but some of our most familiar etiquette rules have long and surprising histories.
1. Saying “Bless You” After Sneezes
This practice dates back to at least 590 CE, when Pope Gregory I commanded that anyone who sneezed immediately be blessed out of fear that it was a sign they had contracted The Plague.
2. Shaking Hands
Shaking hands upon greeting was originally adopted several centuries ago in England as a means of establishing that neither party was armed.
3. Tipping Your Cap
Removing or tipping one’s hat as a sign of respect has a similar origin to that of shaking hands. Knights would flip up their visors and render themselves more vulnerable as a display of friendliness and submission in the face of superiors.
4. Taking Your Hat Off Indoors
In earlier eras, men regularly wore hats outside to protect them from the elements. They removed the hats indoors so these same elements (rain, dirt, etc.) would not fall onto meals or other people.
5. Keeping Your Elbows Off the Table
At medieval feasts, space was at a premium for people looking to dine with lords and ladies, and the long tables were packed to capacity. In such settings, there was simply no way to prop up your elbows without invading your neighbor’s space. Additionally, hunching over your plate of food, with your elbows up, made you seem too eager to eat, like a hungry peasant and not a well-fed member of society.
6. Covering Your Mouth to Yawn
There have been many reasons cited historically to cover your yawns. Yawns were thought to be the soul escaping the body, the evil spirits entering, and yet another sign of the Plague. As early as 1653, yawning became considered a sign of boredom, and thus a rude comment on your present company (and therefore something you’d want to stifle or hide).
7. Allowing a Lady to Walk at a Man’s Right Side
The matter of where to walk has been a hot topic in the history of etiquette. Some sources say that the right side, which historically would have been away from a right-handed knight’s sheathed sword, is the honorary side on which a woman or other person deserving of respect should be allowed to walk.
8. Giving a Lady the Interior of the Sidewalk
Today, the rule of allowing a lady to walk at a man’s right side is superseded by the practice of granting women the “interior” side away from the perilous road so as not to subject her to splashes or runaway carriages.
9. Bride’s Parents Paying for Wedding
In the current and slightly informal era, rules of etiquette seem to matter most in times of matrimony. For example, the bride’s parents are typically expected to foot the bill for the whole affair, a practice which stems from when parents had to come up with appealing dowries in order to entice men to take their daughters off their hands.
10. Showering a Bride with Gifts
Friends of the bride, not her family, traditionally host showers because, long ago, it was a way for a woman to obtain the necessary dowry for a marriage her parents did not approve of. Historically, if a father rejected a man’s request to marry his daughter, the girl’s friends would call on others to “shower” her with gifts so that the marriage could go forward.
11. Touching Glasses for Toasts
There are a couple of explanations for why it is customary to “clink” glasses together as a way of finalizing a toast. The first is that the gesture is a subtler form of spilling a little of your beverage into your neighbor’s glass, a practice that was developed as a sign of faith—if you were trying to poison your dinner companion, you too would be poisoned. A slightly less cynical origin comes from the middle ages; when alcohol was thought to contain literal “spirits” that made those who partook behave outrageously. Bells were thought to drive away such evil sprits and clinking of glasses was the closest approximation on hand.
12. Giving an R.S.V.P. to an Invitation
Why do invitations written in English inevitably include the initials of the French phrase Répondez S’il Vous Plaît? The French phrase for “respond if you please” became a staple of high society’s invitations in the 18th and 19th centuries because French was considered a classier alternative to English for social occasions. Although this habit of using French for everything fell by the wayside, by 1845 these four letters were standing alone on English invitations to request a response.
13. Not Pointing at Someone
Almost all cultures throughout history and around the world consider it to rude to point at someone. The belief is so entrenched that it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact origin, but many explanations center on the ancient idea that you could transfer evil spirits to someone by staring at them with negative thoughts in your mind, a so-called “evil eye.” By pointing at someone, you direct attention and possible “evil eyes” at them.
14. Not Wearing White After Labor Day
Wearing white before Labor Day just makes sense given that lighter colors are the cooler option in the warmer months. But avoiding white after Labor Day is a little less logical. The rule first came about in the late 1800s, when wealthy, high-society women established a series of arbitrary fashion dictates to weed out the new money from the old money, and avoiding white in the winter was just one of them.
15. Pulling Out a Lady’s Chair for Her
Many small chivalrous acts towards women—such as opening doors and pulling out their chairs—stem from the elaborate outfits worn by high society women years ago. These clothes were so restrictive that anyone wearing the fashionable styles required assistance with such things.