History of Etiquette Rules

Day 5 - Street Style - LFW FW15
Timur Emek / Getty Images

Have you ever heard that you should never wear white after Labor Day and wondered about the reason? Do you automatically remove your hat as soon as you enter a building, but you're not sure why? Most of the old etiquette rules were put into place for a reason that may or may not still apply.

Most people think of etiquette and manners as following a set of guidelines out of respect for others and observing social norms of the day.

The word "etiquette" originally came from a French warning to "keep off the grass." Over time, it morphed into what it is today.

Remove Your Hat When Entering a Building

Back in the day when folks walked around dusty dirt roads or industrial cities with soot in the air, the hat caught a lot of grime that would fall on the floor when they entered a room. Back then it made sense to remove the hat and leave it on a rack in the entryway or cloakroom to prevent this from happening.

The only time you absolutely must follow this rule now is when your hat obstructs someone's view or if you are in a social situation that makes it awkward not to do so. If you are in a social situation with someone who frowns on wearing hats indoors, it's good form to remove your hat out of respect.

Don't Wear White After Labor Day

There are a couple of theories about why people didn't wear white after Labor Day, one of them being the temperature.

Since lighter colors tend to reflect heat and darker colors absorb heat, it made sense many years ago, before buildings were climate controlled. However, with air conditioning and heat being available to keep people comfortable year-round, it isn't necessary to worry about that. Also, some of the newer fabrics are designed to repel or absorb heat, regardless of what color they are.

Another theory is that well-heeled people during the Industrial Revolution made it a tradition to change out their summer wardrobes with the lighter colors for the heavier, darker fabrics, simply because they could. These days, you can wear white whenever you want, and if it bothers you, just call it "winter white" and get over it.

Sit with Your Ankles Crossed

Mothers and grandmothers used to tell the girls that they should always sit up straight with their ankles crossed in a ladylike fashion. While sitting up straight is a good rule, the crossed ankles are no longer necessary. Just remember that if you're wearing a short dress, keep your knees together to prevent showing more than you need to.

Men Should Walk on the Street Side of the Sidewalk to Protect the Women

Back when horse and buggy were the normal mode of transportation, men often protected ladies from street perils by providing a shield from horses and puddle splashes. That is obviously no longer necessary, so walk on whichever side of the sidewalk you are comfortable with.

Pulling Out a Lady's Chair

High society women once wore such restrictive clothing that they were unable to sit at a table without assistance from the gentlemen they were with.

Now that women are just as likely to wear pants or lose skirts, they don't need this type of help any longer. However, it is still a nice gesture to assist someone who is disabled or overwhelmed with packages or children. The same holds true for holding doors and helping with packages, regardless of your gender.

Never Point Your Finger or Stare at Someone

Some ancient cultures considered it rude to point to someone because it directed evil spirits toward the subject. Staring was often considered giving someone the "evil eye." Although these myths have been dispelled, most societies still consider finger pointing and staring to be rude.

Blessing Someone After a Sneeze

Do you ever say, "Gesundheidt" or "God bless you," after someone sneezes? It was once thought that a person would lose part of his soul with each sneeze, and bad health would fall over the person.

"Gesundheit" is German for wishing someone good health to prevent this. "God bless you" is a more spiritual protection once thought to keep the soul intact. Few people believe this today, but it's still considered a polite thing to say.

A Man Should Always Pay

Back in the day when men had careers and women didn't (although they often had jobs to tide them over until Mr. Right came along), men were expected to pick up the tab for dinner, a movie, or anything else they did on a date. That rule is clearly outdated. The bill can be paid by him, her, or split down the middle. In other words, it doesn't matter who pays as long as someone does. Some people still hold to the old rule of the man always paying, which is fine as long as the person they are with is of the same mindset.

Use a Separate Fork for Your Salad, Entrée, and Dessert

You might wonder why you don't use the same fork for your salad that you use for your entrée. After all, it creates extra work for the person who has to wash the utensils and put them away. The thought behind this was that you might not want the flavor from your salad dressing to transfer to your meat or potatoes that are served later. It's crass to lick your fork or wipe it on a napkin, so you are given separate forks for the salad, entrée, and dessert.

Always Shake Someone's Hand During an Introduction or Greeting

There are a couple of thoughts on how the handshake began. One school of thought is that it signifies a transfer of power from one person to another (or from a god to a king). However, most historians believe that it was originally used as a method to check for weapons when encountering someone you don't know of haven't seen in a long time. Shaking hands is still considered the appropriate way to greet another person and will remain that way until the more casual fist bump gains more ground.

Even though many of these etiquette rules are outdated, it's important to know that some still exist. The most important thing to remember is to show respect for others, and this often means following the norms of society.

If you leave the country, learn what is considered proper wherever you go so you won't come across as crass or rude.