The Unclassified Laws of Etiquette

by Brett & Kate McKay on March 22, 2009 · 31 comments

in A Man's Life, Dating, Fatherhood, Friendship, Marriage, On Etiquette, Relationships & Family


When Kate and I were in Vermont last summer, we stumbled upon a book called Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms. It was published in 1880. The book is a hodge podge of information that would be useful to a man of business back in the late 19th Century. There are sections dedicated to penmanship, business letter writing, and the dos and don’t of social and business etiquette. One section in the book is called “Unclassified Laws of Etiquette.” It’s a list of different rules of etiquette that didn’t quite fit under the other specific headings (funeral etiquette, etiquette in the home, ect). While the list was written over 100 years ago and some of the suggestions are a bit archaic and random, the advice is still strikingly resonant. It manages to cover many, many of the gaps in etiquette which have  transformed society into a veritable Swiss cheese of incivility. If a man puts these suggestions into practice, he will definitely set himself apart for the other knuckleheads out there trying to land a job or catch the eye of a good looking gal. Looking down the list, I can see several areas were I could use some improvement. Here’s to becoming more refined gentlemen!

  • Never exagerate.
  • Never point at another.
  • Never betray a confidence.
  • Never leave home with unkind words.
  • Never neglect to call upon your friends.
  • Never laugh at the misfortunes of others.
  • Never give a promise that you do not fulfill.
  • Never send a present, hoping for one in return.
  • Never speak much of your own performances.
  • Never fail to be punctual at the time appointed.
  • Never make yourself the hero of your own story.
  • Never pick the teeth or clean the nails in company.
  • Never fail to give a polite answer to a civil question.
  • Never question a child about family matters.
  • Never present a gift saying that it is of no use to yourself.
  • Never read letters which you may find addressed to others.
  • Never fail, if a gentleman, of being civil and polite to ladies.
  • Never call attention  to the features or form of anyone present.
  • Never refer to a gift you have made, or favor you have rendered.
  • Never associate with bad company. Have good company, or none.
  • Never look over the shoulder of another who is reading or writing.
  • Never appear to notice a scar, deformity, or defect of anyone present.
  • Never arrest the attention of an acquaintance by touch. Speak to him.
  • Never punish your child for a fault to which you are addicted yourself.
  • Never answer questions in general company that have been put to others.
  • Never, when traveling abroad, be over boastful in praise of your own country.
  • Never call a new acquaintance by their first name unless requested.
  • Never lend an article you have borrowed, unless you have permission to do so.
  • Never attempt to draw the attention of the company constantly upon yourself.
  • Never exhibit anger, impatience or excitement, when an accident happens.
  • Never pass between two persons who are talking together, without an apology.
  • Never enter a room noisily; never fail to close the door after you, and never slam it.
  • Never forget that, if you are faithful in a few things, you may be ruler over many.
  • Never exhibit too great familiarity with the new acquaintance, you may give offense.
  • Never will a gentleman allude to conquests which he may have made with ladies.
  • Never be guilty of the contemptible meanness of opening a private letter addressed to another.
  • Never fail to offer the easiest and best seat in the room to an invalid, an elderly person, or a lady.
  • Never neglect to perform the commission which the friend entrusted to you. You must not forget.
  • Never send your guest, who is accustomed to a warm room, off into  a cold, damp, spare bed, to sleep.
  • Never enter a room filled with people, without a slight bow to the general company when first entering.
  • Never fail to answer an invitation, either personally or by letter, within a week after the invitation is received.
  • Never accept of favors and hospitality without rendering an exchange of civilities when opportunity offers.
  • Never cross the leg and put one foot in the street-car, or places where it will trouble others when passing by.
  • Never fail to tell the truth. If truthful, you get your reward. You will get your punishment if you deceive.
  • Never borrow money and neglect to pay. If you do, you will soon be known as a person of no business integrity.
  • Never write to another asking for information, or a favor of any kind, without enclosing a postage stamp for the reply.
  • Never fail to say kind and encouraging words to those whom you meet in distress. Your kindness may lift them out of their despair.
  • Never refuse to receive an apology. You may not receive friendship, but courtesy will require, when a apology is offered, that you accept it.
  • Never examine the cards in the card-basket. While they may be exposed in the drawing room, you are not expected to turn them over unless invited to do so.
  • Never, when walking arm in arm with a lady, be continually changing and going to the other side, because of change of corners. It shows too much attention to form.
  • Never insult another with harsh words when applied to for a favor. Kind words do not cost much, and yet they may carry untold happiness to the one to whom they are spoken.
  • Never fail to speak kindly. If a merchant, and you address your clerk; if an overseer, and you address your workman; if in any position where you exercise authority, you show yourself to be a gentleman by your pleasant mode of address.
  • Never attempt to convey the impression that you are a genius, by imitating the faults of distinguished men. Because certain great men were poor penmen, wore long hair, or had other peculiarities, it does not follow that you will be great by imitating their eccentricities.
  • Never give all your pleasant words and smile to strangers. The kindest words and the sweetest smiles should be reserved for home. Home should be our heaven.
  • “We have careful thought for the stranger,
    And smiles for the sometimes guest;
    But oft for our own the bitter tone,
    Though we love our own the best.
    Ah! lips with the curl impatient-
    ‘Twere a cruel fate were the night too late
    To undo the work of the morn.”

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joosh March 22, 2009 at 5:50 pm

If only everyone followed these guidelines…indeed I caught a few that I need to brush up on. Great list!

2 Heather March 22, 2009 at 6:52 pm

I’m so tempted to post this at the office. With certain parts highlighted.

That poem at the end really touched, enough so that I looked it up. The rest of the poem is also very poignant.

It’s called “Our Own” by Margaret Sangster.

3 Ryan March 22, 2009 at 7:08 pm

I would note the etiquette in the picture for this post: Never fail to walk between the lady you are escorting and the road.

4 Tim March 22, 2009 at 8:07 pm

“Never associate with bad company. Have good company, or none.”

Something I’ve always believed said better than I’ve ever been able to put it.

5 Seth March 22, 2009 at 11:22 pm

Well put! Thank you!

6 Wil Wade March 23, 2009 at 4:47 am

“Never, when walking arm in arm with a lady, be continually changing and going to the other side, because of change of corners. It shows too much attention to form.”

I would disagree with this in the case of today as most of the world does not have sidewalks and wide margins from the street. I would say to attempt to always stay between the lady and the passing vehicles. Today it is a matter of safety not a matter of mud splatter.

7 Jacob March 23, 2009 at 6:51 am

Wish more business men and women would follow these, who knows we may not be in the current economic crisis we are in now

8 Uberhack March 23, 2009 at 7:08 am

Great list. Timeless and wise.

Except for the line, “Never laugh at the misfortunes of others.”

Some of the best and heartiest laughs I’ve ever had was after a buddy does something knuckeheaded or clumsy. Should be a clause in there for laughing at friends.

9 Jsthegr8 March 23, 2009 at 10:40 am

Thank YOUS

10 Jeff March 23, 2009 at 10:42 am

This was definitely my favorite:

“Never attempt to convey the impression that you are a genius, by imitating the faults of distinguished men. Because certain great men were poor penmen, wore long hair, or had other peculiarities, it does not follow that you will be great by imitating their eccentricities.”

I know a lot of guys who need this advice.

11 Rod Newbound, RN March 23, 2009 at 12:42 pm

An interesting find. Thanks for sharing Brett & Kate.

One which immediately jumped out at me is: “Never associate with bad company. Have good company, or none.”

It reflects a saying of George Washington: “Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation, for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company.”

12 Jack March 23, 2009 at 2:17 pm

I especially like the rule about leaving a postage stamp in letters you send asking for help. I know it really doesn’t apply now but I found it cleverly polite.

13 Mike J March 23, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Rod Newbound, above, mentioned George Washington. If you like this kind of book, then his ‘Rules of Civility’ is a must read. Interestingly enough, this set of rules was itself based on another book by French Jesuit priests that Washington had read as a young man. I’m sure we could trace them back even farther to Greek philosophers and beyond, so I’m so glad you posted this article. It is so important to keep these traditions alive.

14 Virilitas March 23, 2009 at 3:48 pm

@Mike: I have read that Washington copied out the rules (from the Jesuit book) by hand in order to learn them. Thanks to Art of Manliness, we have additional rules to copy out and to let sink in. For maximum efficiency, I like to combine that sort of repetitive-writing, memory exercise with penmanship practice.

15 Mario Bertoluzzi March 23, 2009 at 4:08 pm

How great, Brett. Thank you for your service to us! You dig up these great things. I read this with my wife and we very much enjoyed it.

16 Mike M. March 23, 2009 at 6:23 pm

I don’t think there is anyone alive who can honestly say they have done all of these. Certainly I can’t.

But that fact should not dissuade us from trying.

17 Michael Moon April 3, 2009 at 11:47 am

This post is a gift. Thank you, Brett. Duly noted and accepted with pleasure.

18 Dino April 12, 2009 at 6:35 am

Never, when traveling abroad, be over boastful in praise of your own country

My favourite, seeing as I constantly encounter foreign people here in the UK who go on and on about how much better their country is than Britain – if you don’t like it here pal then go home.

By the way I’m Italian by birth

19 Robin April 18, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Never whisper to someone when there are other persons present.

20 Chris May 13, 2009 at 5:41 am

This is a great list, and I will refer to it often. However, the first verb is misspelled. Please look again at exaggerate, and then feel free to delete this comment. Thank you so much for your insightful and useful website.

21 Jeffrey K July 19, 2009 at 1:44 am

I especially appreciate the one about traveling abroad, because as an American. I feel as if I need to be highly respectful of other countries when traveling, as often my countrymen are thought of poorly in this category.

22 FC Lurker November 21, 2009 at 12:42 am

Rather than a list of “nevers,” I’d like to see a list of “always.”

23 Nicholas December 23, 2009 at 11:57 am

My favourite is:

“Never associate with bad company. Have good company, or none.”

24 AAAAANDRE April 14, 2010 at 2:31 am

Hill’s Manual is the Best!

I rescued a beat up copy from the trash and have treasured it since.
You can find it at as a PDF if you dig around a little…

There’s a few versions, not sure which is best?

25 Jobinson July 10, 2010 at 2:44 am

Hey this is a huge Never List, I have to bookmark this page, Yes everyone has to follow this to live a life of respect, but this Never list never end here, it grows according to many situations and circumstances

26 Justin March 22, 2013 at 9:56 am

Definitely found a few that I could improve upon.
Would love the opportunity to read an article on penmanship, and of ways to improve upon it. It is one of those topics that is repeatedly stressed in various articles; however, it is rarely expanded upon.

Thank You.

27 Roberto February 15, 2014 at 5:54 pm

i love writing in a notebook. i had a teacher in grade six who taught us penmanship. a lot of loopy circles as i recall. my writing isn’t that legible now, but i noticed that people like my mom and other ladies always had really nice handwriting, it was taught in schools.

yes, this is a good list. there is something appealing about decency.

28 Rick from Bensonhurst February 19, 2014 at 2:54 pm

Odd? I was always taught that when a gentleman walks with a lady, he should always strive to impose himself between her, and the buildings. This, as danger posed by hoodlums and ruffians is more likely to come from doorways and alleyways, than from the open street.
Further, it allows the lady, in all her finery, an unobstructed view from passing carriages.
Still, one supposes circumstance may dictate an alternative course.

29 Mike C February 23, 2014 at 12:46 pm

All etiquette serves the Gentleman’s core consideration suitably subtle statement:
“Never forget that, if you are faithful in a few things, you may be ruler over many.”

30 Joseph March 22, 2014 at 10:59 am

See also George Washington’s Rules of Civility

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