What George Washington Didn’t Know About 21st Century Civility

George Washington

George Washington.  The founder of our country, first president, and man whom we admire even today for his bravery and courage was also a stickler for polite manners.  In his Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, he instructed readers not to sleep while someone is talking to you, touch yourself in public, or blow your nose at the dinner table.  All good rules of civility that still apply today.  Some of George’s ideas about behaviors to avoid are thankfully out of date, though.  Here are just a few:

  • George wrote: “Spit not in the Fire, nor Stoop low before it neither Put your Hands into the Flames to warm them, nor Set your Feet upon the Fire especially if there be meat before it.” 

I agree that spitting in the fire is gross, and you shouldn’t prop your feet up near a fire where people’s food is cooking, but thank goodness he’s wrong about putting your hands near the flames to warm them.  What else would one do on a cool evening when gathered with friends or family around the Outdoor Fireplace?  When hands are cold, and there is a deliciously warm fire nearby, the natural instinct is to put the two together.  Warm your hands, George!  No one will think less of you for doing so.

  • George wrote: “When you Sit down, Keep your Feet firm and Even, without putting one on the other or Crossing them.” 

Clearly, George did not own an ottoman or a lounge chair of any kind on which he could prop up his feet after a busy day running the country.  In fact, keeping one’s feet firm and even doesn’t even sound comfortable.  Perhaps a rule of this sort still survives in fancy living rooms and sitting rooms.  In outdoor living areas, though, kicking back and lounging around on comfortable Patio Furniture is the only acceptable behavior, even in company.

  • George wrote: “Make no Shew of taking great Delight in your Victuals.” 

Sorry, George.  Food is one of the greatest pleasures we have, which is why cooking shows and food channels are so popular.  To not delight in one’s food, especially when that food has been carefully and lovingly prepared by friends or family, would be rude.   When we can enjoy our meals cooked outdoors on a Gas or Charcoal Grill, the delicious food combined with the fresh air makes for an even more pleasurable eating experience.  If he could experience it himself, even George would agree that a few oohs, ahhs, and yums would be acceptable.

Sure, times change, and so do ideas about appropriate behavior.  It’s fun to read George’s long list of 17th century manners and discover what is still relevant.  Not surprisingly, much of what he has to say about personal comfort and how to behave with friends has changed dramatically.  Perhaps he’d be appalled if he could see us today.  Or, perhaps he would feel a renewed sense of freedom.  Go ahead, George, kick back, enjoy your meal, and be sure to warm your tootsies by the fire.

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