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Downton Abbey, Jane Austen, and Good Manners

By Jessica Pipes
Downton Abbey

I recently had the opportunity to attend an etiquette class. I already knew most of what was taught in the class from watching numerous reruns of Downton Abbey and Jane Austen. However, it was still good to hear it all put together and to get answers to some of those etiquette myths that still float around.

Many of you probably already think having good manners, especially when dating, is important. But I’ll briefly make a case anyway.

First, manners are meant to make social interactions go smoothly – if everyone knows what is expected of them, then there’s no awkwardness.

Second, good manners make you look good, like being well-dressed and well-groomed. And good manners give so much self-confidence. You don’t have to feel awkward sitting down to a meal with a date, because you already know what to do.

Third, and last of all, good manners are an act of charity. In Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Collins makes that egregious mistake of introducing himself to Mr. Darcy instead of being introduced by a mutual acquaintance, you might think – who cares? He’s just being friendly. But there was a customary way of being introduced in that society.

Following customs of etiquette is a simple way of showing that the common good of the society is a person’s first priority, over and above his own convenience. It’s a simple act of humility and self-denial. And we all want to date people of virtue.

There are etiquette classes out there, books on manners, and of course the know-it-all internet is full of tips. Or maybe the best idea is just to watch some good Jane Austen films and take notes.

Here are a couple of things I really enjoyed learning about:

1. How to Set a Table

I’m fascinated by all the intricacies of setting a table, and I feel so confident when I sit down to a nice meal (unfortunately there are less and less of these in our modern society) and know which fork to use. Here’s the basic idea:

A couple tips:

  1. Knife and spoon have five letters, they go on the right (right has five letters). Fork has four letters and left has four letters.
  2. You use utensils from the outside – in. So salad fork and soup spoon are on the outside, dinner fork and knife on the inside.

Now you’re ready for Downton Abbey-style dining! Maybe …

2. Small Talk

Small talk is so hard for me! I’ll gladly discuss a great work of literature or medieval European history, but those friendly just-getting-to-know-you conversations can be so hard. Especially since I don’t follow celebrities, watch many movies, or listen to most current music!

The worst thing is when I ask someone how their day is going, and they say “Good.”

End of conversation.

Awkward. So small talk tip number one: everyone knows the first question will be “How are you?” and the second question will be “What do you do?” Be ready! Don’t give the saga of your life but have some interesting tidbit.

“Today was great! I got to go for a run before work, and it was a perfect day for running. Do you like to run?”

“I’m a teacher. I teach fourth grade, but my favorite subject to teach is history. Do you like history?”

I know that a lot of people don’t like to talk about work, especially after a long day at work. So if that over-used “What do you do?” fizzles out, just take the plunge! Here are some of my favorite small talk questions:

Do you have any hobbies? What do you like to do on the weekend?
Have you read any good books recently?
Have you gone on any exciting trips recently?

And always be ready to supply information about yourself to keep the conversation going!


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