Edwardian Etiquette Corner #1: The Worst Breach of Etiquette

The word “etiquette”, when used in the twenty-first century, seems almost invariably to have a pretentious connotation. They’re those rules that we’re almost inevitably messing up that nobody cares about anymore except when they embarrass us. “Remnants” of “sexist” etiquette, such as the idea that men should hold open doors for women, still cause anxiety today, with some men not wanting to appear rude by allowing the door to slide closed in a woman’s face but also not wanting to seem sexist by holding it open.

However, etiquette, at its root, was never meant to embarrass anyone. The idea was that if everybody followed the same set of rules, then one could go through life knowing precisely what to expect of themselves and others. Awkwardness would be reduced because everyone knew their role in a given social situation. Caveat: this did, of course, enable entrenched gendered, racial, and classed systems by making certain actions as “natural.” That being said, the general idea behind etiquette was to facilitate interactions with various members of society.

Where does one learn these rules? Generally by being brought up “correctly”: being “well-bred” and well-educated as a child. Essentials of etiquette include not drawing attention to the body (which is why, say, cleaning one’s teeth at the dinner table with a toothpick or picking one’s nose have generally been faux-pas for ages), knowing how to address others properly, and being calm and courteous in almost any situation.

Immortalized mid-sneeze. Bodily functions were one aspect of life that people of “good breeding” would always ignore. It was because they would avoid drawing attention to bodily functions that actions such as blowing one’s nose loudly, picking one’s teeth at the table, or farting are considered rude even today. Source: Tumblr.

Written etiquette guides, of course, spoke to the anxieties surrounding these usually unwritten rules. The bulk of these books addressed unusual circumstances like introductions and marriages, particularly in situations where one might have to address strangers. One etiquette book from 1896 actually spends over twenty pages on bicycle etiquette: how long a lady could go out cycling, whether or not it was appropriate for her to cycle unescorted, etc. The amount of ink spilled in this chapter is testament to the anxiety the writer felt about this new situation and how society should react to it.

Quick: what’s the worst possible breach of etiquette, according to Edwardian etiquette manuals? It may surprise you. Getting little details incorrect- e.g., whether or not to hold aloft the cliché pinky while sipping a teacup – may mark you out as ill-bred, but the occasional error will not put you in disgrace. No, the worst breach of etiquette is pointing out someone else’s breach of etiquette. So those folks who like to nit-pick other people’s behaviour and correct them in front of others to feel superior? They are in fact worse offenders than those they mock.

(Aside from parents or governesses teaching children etiquette, the only exceptions to this rule seems to be the authors of etiquette manuals, but they always have arrogant overtones to their writing.)

One etiquette manual asked its readers to consider how one should react in a test situation. Say you are hosting a dinner, and you, the hostess, look over and notice that one of your guests is eating his soup with the wrong utensil: a fork. The worst possible outcome of this situation would be for you to chastise this guest in front of everyone, marking yourself out as ill-bred and embarrassing your guest. Alternatively, it would be almost as bad for that guest to look over at you, the hostess, and see that he was eating with a different utensil and for him to feel embarrassed. So what does this etiquette manual recommend you do? Pick up your fork and eat your soup with it like that guest. (Besides, this situation would not have arisen if everyone knew the correct rules; if the problem was that the guest was not brought up well enough to know the correct utensils when he saw them, he should not have been invited, and if the problem was that his table setting lacked the required utensil, that was your fault as a hostess, not your guests’.)

We in 2014 do not live in an etiquette-less society. Some of our etiquette may in flux, certainly, but one of the reasons that people get annoyed is because many of us do not follow the same set of assumed rules. Take, for example, using one’s phone in a lecture hall. Texting, most of us have been taught, is incredibly rude to do when someone is speaking, doubly so if you are, say, a student in a lecture meant to be receiving information from someone with greater knowledge/power than you. However, in recent years, live-tweeting a conference talk has become more and more common; in that case, the audience member glued to their smart phone is in fact being more attentive to what the speaker is saying, not less. Nevertheless, one still can’t, at a glance, see if the person sitting in the front row staring at their phone (and not the speaker) is texting someone about how drunk they were last night or if they are in fact spreading the speaker’s message to attentive followers who couldn’t make it to the lecture.

Historical etiquette books are fascinating because just as often as they enumerate points of etiquette that seem quaint and old-fashioned (one devoted several pages to the merits of using forks or spoons to eat ice cream), much of their advice is still immediately applicable today. Watch this space for further blog entries on forgotten but still useful pieces of historical etiquette.

A group of women walk up the steps of the Rue de Rivoli, Paris, on June 3rd 1906. Notice the way that they have gathered a handful of  their skirts from behind and pulled it forward, freeing the legs to walk up the steps without flashing knees by taking fistfuls of it from the front and raising it up. Source: Edwardian Street Style.

Further Reading 

Avoiding the $17,500 Typo: Tips to Prevent Losing Easy Marks on Written Assignments

I’m going to stop talking about public history and my own historical research for a moment to issue a public service announcement that I hope will be of some use to students, including the ones whose papers I am to grade this semester.

Even in elementary school (at least as far as my own experience), students are indoctrinated with the importance of proofreading. “Read over your own work and check for mistakes,” we are told over and over, and yet so many of us admit with very little prompting that we don’t do as much proofreading as we should.

Well, here I am, reminding you once again of the importance of proofreading. It cannot be underestimated. You never grow out of needing to proofread. Nobody graduates high school, finishes their Undergraduate degree or even their Master’s or PhD program with a perfect understanding of English and an ability to transcribe everything perfectly into the written word the first time. We are all human, and thus we make mistakes: particularly the dreaded embarrassing typo.

In the first year of my Master’s program, we attended a few information sessions about grant applications. One woman in particular who came in to speak to us about the SSHRC grant – valued at $17,500 at the MA level that year – said something that has continued to stick in my mind. I asked her at the end of her talk about what can get my application tossed out immediately. (They get so many applications, you see, that SSHRC evaluators apparently look for any excuse to put applications to the bottom of the pile.)

Her immediate answer? Typos, particularly typos in the first paragraph.

I reiterate this last point: a typo can cost you up to $17,500. Proofreading matters.

Typos, I have been informed by friends and relatives who are involved in the hiring process at various jobs, are also one of the most common reasons why they don’t call some people back. If there is a typo in an applicant’s résumé/curriculum vitae or cover letter, it signals to the employer that that person does not care enough about this position to take the time to properly prepare and review their application. Get in the habit early of proofreading all of the writing you submit to anybody.

I know that we are all busy university students, but seriously, it is really worth your while to check over your writing, even if it is “only” your professor reading it. If you don’t have enough time to spend half an hour rereading your work, you did not manage your time well. Put off sleep for one more half hour, or reread your work in the morning before printing it off. I promise you one more read-through is worth it. As a TA, seeing a typo signals to me sloppiness and carelessness on the part of the author of the work and puts me on guard for other errors. Like many TA markers, I am detail oriented, and I focus in on the small mistakes in the papers I grade. Poor writing style is often intertwined with poor argumentation in the minds of many who mark assignments; one doesn’t necessarily follow the other, but too often a preponderance of typos or spelling and grammatical errors also indicates a lack of strong rhetorical skills. Leave a favourable impression, and don’t distract your reader from your arguments with small errors in how you articulate them.

There are several other easy ways to avoid losing easy marks on written assignments, particularly at the high school and university level. Some of these will likely prompt sarcastic “Yes, of course, Captain Obvious!” remarks, but those who do may be surprised by the number of students who in essence throw away easy marks.

I know, I know, all you want to do is get this assignment over and done with so you can go back to doing whatever it is that the hip and cool kids are doing nowadays: perfecting your parkour skills, inventing time machines, learning how to knit. You know, the usual. Image courtesy of Library and Archive Canada's Flickr page.
I know, I know, all you want to do is get this assignment over and done with so you can go back to doing whatever it is that the hip and cool kids are doing nowadays: perfecting your parkour skills, inventing time machines, learning how to knit. You know, the usual. However, I assume you’re in university for a reason and want to do well. That means doing the work. Image courtesy of Library and Archive Canada’s Flickr page.

First, read the assignment sheet. Even if you personally feel that the instructions are deadly boring or are for an assignment for which you can’t see any purpose, follow the instructions. In your future career, you will at some point be assigned to write something you don’t want to write. It’s a useful skill, to be able to follow instructions to the letter. You may only be writing for an audience of one or two, in this case, but your work should reflect the creative and intelligent person you know you are.

Read your assignment sheet when you first get it. Ask clarifying questions of the professor or teaching assistant (TA), if necessary. The instructors are generally available and happy to answer questions about the assignment in person, after or during class, during office hours, or through e-mail. Ask well in advance of the due date if you can; if you ask the night before, professors and TAs may not be able to answer your question in time to be useful, and it also indicates to us that the student who asked the question likely didn’t start the assignment until the night before, which is never a good sign.

Read your assignment sheet when you choose your topic. Make sure it falls within the parameters. Read your assignment sheet again when you do your research, when you start writing, and when you have finished and are in the final editing stages. Read it on multiple occasions. Follow the instructions. If the professor gives you a page count or a word count minimum or maximum, stick to it. Don’t try to alter font sizes or margins; professors and TAs can often tell, as they have in all likelihood already been staring at papers like yours for the past few hours or days.

Pay attention to dictated citation style systems. Even if you have a personal vendetta against Chicago Manual of Style (which I personally adore, but maybe its creators killed your father; I know nothing of any grammar blood feuds), if the professor says you should use it, use it. You are writing for an audience of one or two: those who wrote the assignment sheet. Use the style they want.

Every citation style is created with a purpose and provides different information. APA, as far as I understand, was designed to cite studies. This is why it is often used in the sciences, where you can’t really cite one conclusion or even one sentence out of context; you really need to go back and read the entire study. In this case, it makes sense to just cite the author(s) and year. However, APA really doesn’t work for citing primary historical sources. Great, you just cited the entire written work of one historical figure in a certain year. What do you want the reader to get out of it? Where can I find the information you’re talking about in that 700 page tome? Chicago style – footnoting – is ideal for citing small passages in large works and so is often favoured by the historical profession. If your professor wants you to use it, use it. They may dock marks otherwise.

Some professors, by contrast, don’t care what citation style you use, as long as you are consistent and the reader can retrace your steps. The whole point of citations is so a reader can theoretically read all that you cite and see where you came to your conclusions. If your citation doesn’t do that, you have a problem.

Pay attention to word counts or paper length. Some professors don’t mind if you go over or under the proposed minimum or maximum by a small amount. Others are exacting to the very page or word and will ruthlessly dock marks. Find out which your professor is. You can also theoretically ask the professor themselves how much leeway they give for page or word counts. They may even answer your question instead of remaining women or men of mystery!

Remember, you are writing for a limited audience – the professor, and perhaps your TA – but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t an important one. They are judging your writing for its worth. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Do your best, and follow the instructions.

The following are a few examples of papers that I have received from students who clearly didn’t read the instruction sheet. Often, they are otherwise incredibly intelligent and capable people, but lost marks for reasons that could have been easily avoided:

  • A well-written document analysis of a letter from Isabella of Spain to Christopher Columbus in the 1490s regarding the discovery of India. (This was, in reality, as we all know: various Caribbean islands.) This work was submitted for an assignment for an American history survey course that specified that the first assignment should analyze a document from between the 1640s – 1760s on the territory that would become the Continental United States. It was outside of the geographical and temporal range specified in the assignment; since it was well-written, we gave the student the option of writing a new paper in two weeks. This mistake and the extra work involved could have been avoided by consulting the assignment sheet at any stage in the research and writing process.
  • A different student turned in a one-page paper for that same document analysis assignment, when the paper was supposed to be at least a thousand words long. It made a fine introductory paragraph, but fell far too short of the specified length. This could have been avoided by consulting the assignment sheet.
  • Several students turned in document analyses of textual sources that were not from the online archive specified by the instruction sheet. One purpose of the assignment was so that students could learn to use the Library of Congress’ online archive; if the student found the document by Googling, it defeated the purpose of the assignment, and marks were docked. This could have been avoided by consulting the assignment sheet.

Furthermore, please remember that spellchecks are not infallible. Just because your Word document has not underlined any words with red squiggles does not mean that you do not have any typos. Auto-correct can change your small mistake to a word that you didn’t intend for it to be, and you may not even notice as you furiously type up your brilliant arguments at amazing speeds. If you have the time, read through your assignment out loud; it will prevent your eyes from skipping ahead and over words.

Finally, I also recommend that you get a friend or loved one to read through your assignment; they often catch mistakes that the spellcheck doesn’t. Preferably, make it someone who is unfamiliar with your topic. If you choose someone who works in other fields, they will be more likely to review or ask for clarification for your writing style  or will be searching for typos, not accidentally giving you new ideas for your main argument… which can stray dangerously close to plagiarism.

In general, students will only get as much out of the assignment as they put in. The purpose of written assignments is not to torture students, but to educate them. These essays are generally assigned to improve your research skills, your ability to think critically about texts, and articulate arguments. You may be a brilliant researcher but if you cannot communicate your ideas, you have not achieved your desired goal and your work suffers for it. Professors and teaching assistants can only evaluate what they have in front of them, not what you know and understand in your head. Think of these written assignments as practice. They are not meant to be perfect – some instructors refuse to ever give students perfect marks, believing it impossible – but in theory they help to improve your research skills, critical thinking, and writing style, which are all abilities that should serve you well both in school and outside of academia, including in the job market.

So please: proofread your work and review your assignment sheets. Your writing should reflect your arguments and leave a good impression with the reader. Typos are like potholes on a highway; they can be annoying, do not promote favourable impressions, and can potentially cause life threatening accidents… Wait, I mean that they can derail your argument entirely and prevent the car (your instructor, in this metaphor) from going on their merry way to giving you an excellent grade.

Further Reading

Final post-script: If you spot any typos in this article, please point them out to me so I can correct them. I won’t be offended. I have read and re-read this post multiple times, but as I have stressed already: nobody is perfect, however much we would like to be. (Side note: as a Canadian blogger, all extra “u”s in the middle of words like “favour”, “honour”, and “colour” are meant to be there, no matter what the American spellcheck says.)