At times we may be inclined to think that politeness places undue stress on the merely outward forms of behaviour, that there is too much talk of ties and tails and not enough credit given to the heart of gold. However, when we are dealing with politeness as a social virtue, we must consider externals important.
Let us take deportment as the first of these externals of politeness. The first impact of our personality upon another is often made through our deportment. Even before we have spoken a word we have probably given some indication of the kind of person we are by our manner of standing, walking, sitting, gesturing and our facial expressions. All these things make up what we mean by deportment. People are quick to judge by first impressions, and whether their judgments are fair or not, we cannot afford to ignore them. We must therefore give some thought to our deportment.
The most important quality to aim at in deportment is naturalness. Our bodies, for all the ravages of original sin, can still be the mirror of the beauty of the soul and the power of the mind. Hands, feet, face and our whole physique can help to express a pleasing personality, provided we use them naturally without affectation, timidity or clumsiness.
If you have not observed for yourself what is ungainly or unnatural in your deportment (and such honest discoveries are rare), you ought to be thankful for a kindly word from a parent, teacher or friend who calls your attention to these failings. It may take prolonged, conscious effort, even systematic physical exercise, to eliminate the defect, but once having achieved the natural motions of the body, then the sooner you forget about deportment the better. Your bearing is more likely to be natural and gracious when the need for thinking about it has been dispensed with. If you are too conscious of your deportment, your behaviour is likely to be nervous or studied.
Try to be natural, but always be ready to take a hint from others; that is the best advice for those who are anxious to improve their deportment.
We should avoid the two extremes of the stiff, grenadier-like posture and the listless, sagging state of semi-collapse that some persons adopt (which is so rmpant in today’s society – ed.). The weight should be distributed easily on both feet, which should be slightly apart with the toes pointing outwards. Obvious defects in the positioning of the legs and feet should be taken in hand early and corrected as far as possible, if correct deportment is to be acquired.
When standing, we should hold the head erect, with shoulders braced gently back and chest expanded normally. There are few aspects of posture that give a clearer impression of weakness of physique and even of character than a drooping head, sagging shoulders and a collapsed chest. Health, as well as politeness, demands a posture that is upright, without being too rigid.
Shifting restlessly from one foot to another can be an annoying habit. After standing for a long time we may need to relax our muscles. This can usually be done by a slight change of position or even by walking a few steps. We must avoid all suggestion of fidgetiness.
When addressing a superior,or person of importance, we should show our respect by standing erect, but without any appearance of timidity or obsequiousness. It would indicate a serious lack of courtesy and respect to address a person above us in rank, while leaning against a wall or against the furniture. Such a relaxed posture is permissible only when we are talking casually among our equals.
When standing, as well as in other postures, many people don’t know what to do with their hands. On occasions our hands seem worse than superfluous; they are a positive embarrassment. From the little girl who vigorously twirls and untwirls the corner of her dress to the platform-speaker who stolidly folds his arms across his chest, human ingenuity has tried every possible way of solving this problem. There is no problem at all as long as you can keep yourself suitably relaxed; that is, as long as you can be natural. Some get over the difficulty by holding something in the hand or by lightly clasping the hands in front or behind the back. It is important, in any case, to avoid such mannerisms as constantly “washing” the hands, examining fingers or nails, or thrusting both hands deep into the trouser pockets (an ungainly posture at any time).
The posture we adopt when sitting is often determined by the type of chair we are using. A low armchair or lounge will permit us to adopt a more relaxed position than a high, straight chair. In either case we should be careful not to stretch our legs out in front, or draw them so close under the chair that the knees project.
Do not sit too near the edge of the chair. This often indicates nervousness or timidity. The arms should not be thrown over the back of the chair, nor should the feet rest on the rungs. Swinging on a chair by throwing all the weight on the back legs with the risk of doing damage is an act of thoughtlessness which is all the less excusable if the chair is not your own.
There is no problem in rising from a chair if the chair itself need not be moved. You simply stand up where you are. But if you are seated at table, it is necessary to move the chair from under you at the same time as you rise. You must be careful to lift the chair. In this way you will avoid any clattering, scraping sound.
Be careful that you do not sit with your back towards any of the company. If you find that you have inadvertently done so, a quiet word of apology is called for as you change your position with as little fuss as possible. An apology, of course, is required; if you find that you have taken the chair of someone who has momentarily left it.
When you call at a person’s home or office do not be too eager to sit down. If you are asked to sit down, choose an ordinary chair in preference to an armchair. However, should your host offer you the latter, by all means accept it without hesitation. A good general rule to follow is to be seated when others are seated and stand when they stand. In any case it is well to avoid being the only person seated or the only one standing.
You ought to stand if the person who speaks to you is of higher rank or if a conversation of some length is likely to ensue. When a lady joins the company or leaves it, gentlemen should rise from their chairs.
Sitting with legs crossed can be a comfortable position, although the physical build of some people makes it grotesque. However, young people should not readily take this liberty when visiting another’s home or private office. Until we are on more intimate terms with a person we should exercise reasonable restraint in his presence and not be too ready to make ourselves at home.
The great number of synonyms in the English language for the simple act of walking indicates how expressive the human gait can be. Indeed some people reveal themselves more in their feet than in their tongue. There is the pompous, haughty person who carries himself as though he has just been crowned; the shuffling, foot-dragging type who is either plain lazy or wants to proclaim his sulky displeasure with the whole situation; the ambler, sauntering with complete unconcern for clock or calendar; the hustler, always chasing the last chance or the last bus. You must avoid all these mannerisms and oddities if you wish to acquire the easy, controlled bearing that marks the gentleman.
When walking, do not allow the head to drop forward! The motion of the body causes a drooping head to bob up and down with the comical effect of an agitated goose. This defect can be easily avoided by keeping the shoulders gently braced back. The arms should swing moderately, thus maintaining the natural balance of the body. An exaggerated swing might make people think that you are suffering from the occupational disease of drum majors, while insufficient swing of the arms is one of the most ungainly defects of deportment. Swinging the arms across the body is reminiscent of the jungle.
When walking with others, adjust your pace to that of the rest of the party. If you persist in walking a pace or two ahead of the others you may be considered impatient or unsociable. On the other hand, if you adopt a poor-little-lost-boy pose and straggle along behind the rest, you can hardly blame them if they decide to lose you altogether.
If gesture comes naturally to us, we should use it sparingly and without exaggeration. We should take care that our gestures do not develop into mannerisms. For instance, some people have the habit of poking a finger into the listener’s chest in order to emphasize their points. Others are in the habit of rubbing or scratching the back of their head when they are in doubt what to say.
We should exercise restraint in gestures of friendship. Even the closest of ties are not necessarily strengthened by a hearty thump on the back. To put your hands on another person at any time is a liberty you should be very slow to take. “Hands off” is always a good rule to follow.
In spite of Shakespeare’s “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”, it is true that the face is the most expressive of our physical attributes. It is natural for our facial expression to register our emotions and thoughts. It is therefore an important part of the habits and physical qualities that make up deportment.
To refuse to smile at another’s wit may indicate that mentally we are not very bright or that we are of a melancholy disposition. It should not be due to mere cantankerousness. It shows very bad taste to laugh or smile if the situation demands seriousness. Good sense will generally make it unnecessary to think about our facial expression; we will react naturally to whatever the circumstances may be.
The normal expression of the face should be one of repose. Unnecessary contortions, twitching, frowning or wrinkling the forehead should be avoided. These habits detract from personal appearance and certainly do not enhance one’s intellectual reputation. The drooping, open mouth, in particular, often denotes a feeble mind.
The eyes are the most expressive of the facial features. To say of a person that he has much or little “behind the eyes” is a colloquial way of describing his mental capacity. You reveal your personality through your eyes. Turning the eyes aimlessly in all directions is the sign of an intemperate and unsteady character. Sometimes you may find it necessary to look fixedly at some object or in some direction (rarely at a person). In such cases you should take care to avoid any suggestion of vacant, distracted staring.
The habit of constantly casting the eyes about indicates a want of self-control. There are reasons beyond those of simple good manners for acquiring control of the eyes. Christian modesty will at times require you to turn your gaze away from what might be an incitement to sin. We saw in an earlier chapter that Christian courtesy involves self-denial. In the use of the eyes you will find numerous occasions for the exercise of self-control.
Deportment and Dress
Dress is an important aid to the expression of your personality. In this regard it is closely associated with deportment. Good taste, the certain dictate of fashion and the laws of etiquette are the normal factors that determine correctness of dress. But while you may be pardoned for a failure under any one of these heads, there can be no excuse for any lack of cleanliness in your dress. In these days of quick and efficient dry cleaning there is no need for anyone to wear, at least in public, clothing that is stained or unpressed. Still more important is it to ensure that there are no visible tears or worn patches in your clothing.
Particular care should be taken with collars and shirt-cuffs. They show dirt or stains very easily. It is important to change your shirt and underwear frequently enough to ensure that you are always fit to be in the company of others. This precaution applies in a special manner to socks and footwear generally.
Good taste in clothing is expressed by a sense of propriety in the selection of design, colour and material, and above all, by a practical knowledge of the right clothes for every occasion Although there is something to be said for bringing back a dash of colour into men’s clothing, little sense and bad taste are shown by one who decks himself out in startling colours for no other reason than to attract attention to himself. This is a form of exhibitionism that is becoming very common. Human peacocks are often maladjusted birds; they cannot win applause in higher fields of endeavour, so they try to compel attention by a primitive appeal to raw colour.
Whatever may be said of taste in colours, it says little for the intelligence of a young man who wears a particular colour or an odd style of dress for no other reason than that a film actor wore it, or was directed to wear it, as is more likely. In spite of changing tastes in men’s clothing, it is still better to leave the pretties, or the greeter part of them, to the ladies. Effeminacy is the last charge that any real man wants to have pinned on him.
As long as men (and certainly women) are what they are, fashions in dress will change. It is good to keep abreast of fashion to a certain degree. Christian ettiquette and not wordly ettiquette should guide you to judge whether or not a fashion may be followed. There is no need to hold on to the 18th centuary in style of dress, but neither can one adopt a modern form that cries out against Christian modesty.
Here a word might be said about jewellery and other forms of decorative hardware. None at all or very little is the best rule for men. Cuff links and tie clips have a definite functional purpose. They should be of good quality and modest design. Good taste is shown by avoiding anything that is merely showy. Ear rings and the likes are feminine decorations. Men who wear these are definitely effeminate.
Dressing for the occasion
When you receive an invitation to a function, whether private or public, you should take care to find out what form of dress is expected. If you are in doubt, you will never be far wrong in wearing a suit of dark colour with a tie that is not too conspicuous.
It has been said that the true gentleman is one who is never nonplussed; that is, he is able readily to adapt himself to any circumstances without being put out or embarrassed. He always knows the right thing to do or say. Whether it is spilt milk or a road accident, he does not panic, but moves confidently and without fuss to deal with the situation.
This quality of poise is closely allied to deportment, and, like the latter, can be acquired if we do not possess it naturally. It is a social virtue that can be of great value to us in meeting difficult situations.
Occasions may arise when the success or failure of our undertakings depends upon the poise we display under stress. To acquire poise in handling these situations such expedients as the following may be adopted: a few moments pause before entering a room for an interview; taking a full deep breath before approaching a hostess or entering a conversation; going mentally through the procedure of introduction before meeting people; making sure that you are comfortably and appropriately dressed before stepping into the situation.
Attention to points like these will soon enable you to acquire that ease of manner and that unselfconscious poise that mark the gentleman.