Manners, Customs, Clothing

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Why Not a Handkerchief?

Judith Fife Mead

I was working on the last phase of a book on courtesy (recently published by TIA) when I received a video of Kathleen Sebelius publicly chastising a reporter at a press conference for sneezing and not using his sleeve to stop it. The Health and Human Services Secretary proceeded to give a demonstration of how one should perform this act, sarcastically suggesting that the reporter receive a class on the topic from Elmo, a puppet on Sesame Street.

Kathleen Sebelius Sneezing

Sebelius demonstrating the supposedly correct way to sneeze - into her jacket sleeve
The Resurgence of the Curtsy

Judith Fife Mead

With the marriage of Catherine Middleton to Prince William, there has been a new spark of interest in the curtsy. In England it is still the custom for women to curtsy in front of royalty. So some young American girls who are enthused with Princess Kate – or princesses in general – are enrolling in “curtsy classes” to learn this traditional gesture of greeting, the lady’s equivalent of the man’s bow in Western culture. It is unlikely the American girls will actually have the opportunity to greet a queen or princess, but it is interesting to see that they would like to be prepared to exercise the proper form of obeisance, should that occasion arise. A friend recently called me to ask if I thought girls should learn to curtsy. And if so, when would be the suitable occasion to do it. It seemed an opportune occasion to discuss the charming gesture and to offer a balanced proposal for the return of the custom. I don’t believe little girls should be bobbing up and down in clumsy curtsies all the time. But to know how to make a correct curtsy and execute it on the appropriate occasions is, in my opinion, a very good and fitting thing for a young girl and woman to know. When I was a girl and a student of the Ursulines in New Orleans, it was common practice for the girls to curtsy each time we met one of the nuns in the hallway. Placing the right foot a little behind the left foot, we would slightly bend both knees and at the same time greet her, “Good morning Mother Teresita,” or “Good afternoon, Sister Cecilia.” It was not a genuflection (where the right knee touches the floor), which was reserved for Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Tabernacle. It was, however, a very beautiful gesture demonstrating the extra respect we were taught to show for these religious who had consecrated their lives to Christ. Unfortunately, in the 1960s, this custom was discontinued. I spoke to several of my old teachers, but none of them could remember why the curtsy was put aside. It seems to me that it was just part of the modern and egalitarian changes that were sweeping through the Church and secular society at that time.

For example, when I went to my 1922 Emily Post book, in Chapter 35 titled “The Kindergarten of Etiquette,” it is advised that in good homes boys are always taught to bow to visitors and girls to curtsy. These gestures, Mrs. Post tells us, are ways to show respect for one’s elders and for children to become used to instinctive good manners. By the time we reach the late 20th century, however, the now reigning Miss Manners, Judith Martin, issues a decree that Americans should never curtsy, especially to royalty, because “the curtsy is the traditional gesture of an inferior to a superior.” We Americans, she continues, who fought a war of independence to be free of noble titles and customs, should simply shake the hand of royalty or anyone else. (Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, pp.693-694).

I disagree most vehemently with this decree of Miss Manners. Every well-ordered Catholic society is hierarchical, as Dr. Marian Horvat and I point out in our book Courtesy Calls Again. Signs of deference and respect are the good fruit of the customs developed in a Christian Civilization, and we should do all in our power to promote or revive them whenever we can. How to Curtsy

The word "curtsy," or "curtsey," derives from the word "courtesy." It is in fact a form of showing courtesy to one who is above you in rank or station. In the past it was used consistently in daily life, not just reserved for royalty. One need only watch a Jane Austen film to realize how women and girls used to curtsy regularly for those of senior social rank, just as men and boys bowed. The simple curtsy is very easy to learn and make. The whole act takes a few seconds and is done in one graceful motion. These are the steps: Bend your head slightly. Hold your skirt out sideways with your thumbs and first two fingers with the little fingers extended, or hold your hands straight on each side. Extend your left leg slightly behind your right one, with the toe touching the floor. At the same time bend your right leg slightly, keeping the back straight and still holding the head in a nod. Bend your knees outward, rather than forward. Then gracefully bring yourself back to your original position.

When paying obeisance to royalty, the deep curtsy – or full court curtsy – is made. It is more elaborate and difficult to master and very elegant to view when properly executed. A full court curtsy is much lower than the ordinary one. Again, the left foot is slightly behind the right foot and resting on the toe. Then, with both knees outward, one sinks gradually towards the ground – as far as your nimbleness permits - bending the head slightly forward. The greater part of the weight is on the right foot when bending down, and is transferred to the left foot on rising. This curtsy requires careful practice to be made with the back straight, only the head slightly bent and without any jerks on the way down or up.

The court curtsy is still made at debutante balls in the United States and in some European courts. In the United Kingdom Queen Elizabeth and her family are often greeted by curtsying ladies. Members of the Royal Family always bow and curtsy to the Queen when they meet her for the first time in the day. The King and Queen of Spain also seem to receive bows and curtsies on a very regular basis, and their children also often greet Their Majesties with a bow or curtsy. The late Princess Diane was well known for her deep and very elegant curtsy.

When to curtsy

It seems to me the curtsy is always appropriate at the end of awards presentations or music recitals. After receiving an award at a formal ceremony, the girl should curtsy to the teacher or principal to show her gratitude. The performer curtsies to her teacher or the maestro. also a sign of gratitude. At the end of an instrumental or chorus performance, it is still customary today for the men to bow and the ladies to curtsy, although some directors, following the egalitarian tendencies of our times, let the girls bow as well. A young lady in a skirt should always curtsy instead of bowing.

If a family is having a formal dinner or afternoon tea in their home, it is appropriate for their daughters to make the short curtsy before the special guests when they are formally introduced.

In traditional Catholic schools, where the nuns still wear the full habit, it would be nice to see the custom of curtsying when greeting a Sister reintroduced.

The girl who crowns the Virgin Mary at a May crowning or presents flowers to her in a ceremony should certainly curtsy before the statue of the Queen of Heaven as a befitting sign of the deferential respect due to her.

These are a few suggestions. To close, I invite my readers to watch Princess Catherine making her obeisance to the Queen on her wedding day here. A simple late 19th century bow and curtsy are executed here. You may also find many lovely pictures of the curtsy being executed by or before members of the European Royalty here.

The performance of Sebelius could not be more demeaning and prosaic. During a press conference, she arrogantly took on the air of a mother disciplining a bad little boy who has sneezed into his hand instead of his sleeve.

“I mean, what is that about? Jeeeez!” she said. Press secretary Robert Gibbs, the good boy in class, stepped into the act, “I want to point out that Margaret sneezed a few minutes ago, very correctly, in the sleeve.” Then Mrs. Sebelius instructed someone to quickly bring the errant reporter a hand sanitizer – as if the germs were somehow mysteriously spreading through the air faster on his hand than they would have on his sleeve. It seemed like a scene from a sitcom – but no, this is real life drama at the Obama White House.

More shocking than Sebelius’ incredible condescension, however, is the whole notion of teaching people to sneeze into their sleeves. It is difficult to believe that after centuries of training people to use handkerchiefs rather than sleeves for wiping their noses and sneezing, now, in 2009, the Health and Human Services Secretary decrees that the latter is the preferred method of hygienic conduct.

Why not use a handkerchief? Have we really become so impulsive a people that we have to react by sneezing into the sleeve instead of using a handkerchief? I cannot understand how so many educated and apparently civil persons are jumping on the sneeze-in-the-sleeve wagon, heralding this practice as something that is very practical, sensible and hygienic. It seems to me it is admitting defeat in the field of civility and handing the banner over to a new barbarianism without a fight.

I thought I would check with some popular etiquette manuals to see how – in saner, more courteous times – we dealt with the problem of sneezing. The 17th edition of the Emily Post book, edited by Peggy Post, gives this advice:
“To lessen the risk of passing on a cold, you should wash your hands several times a day (hand contact passes the virus to anything you touch) and sneeze into a handkerchief or tissue.”

If you are at the dinner table, she elaborates a bit more: “When you feel a sneeze or a cough coming on, cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief or tissue – or your napkin, if that’s the only thing within reach. (In an emergency, your hand is better than nothing at all. If a coughing or sneezing bout is prolonged, excuse yourself until it passes.)”
sleeve sneeze 01

School posters demonstrating the supposedly correct - and incorrect - way to sneeze

sleeve sneeze 02
This makes good sense and maintains the dignity of the person. If a person sneezes into his hand, it is a simple matter to excuse himself to wash his hands, a habit easily learned and acquired. But this practice is not even being presented as an option anymore. Instead, there are posters and signs being printed and posted today that instruct everyone to sneeze into the sleeve. So, the man, woman or child sneezes – and carries the mucous and germs all day on the sleeve of his jacket or shirt. That is revolting, in my opinion.

That has also been the general opinion in polite society for centuries. Medieval courtesy manuals – written by monsignors and courtiers – considered it elementary that ladies and gentlemen do not sneeze or wipe their noses in their sleeves.

The fifth rule in George Washington’s Rules of Civility – carefully handwritten by our first President when he was young and preparing to appear in society – addresses the question of coughing or sneezing. His advice: “Put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside.” To do otherwise was to appear uncouth, a country bumpkin.

Those were the days when all men and boys and, of course, ladies and girls carried handkerchiefs. I, for one, am not prepared to relegate the handkerchief to the dust bin. I am constantly “on a hunt” for beautiful linen hankies. When I find one with elegant lace or hemstitched borders, with embroidered or appliquéd accents, I am especially pleased. Estate sales are great sources for these items, after the contents of the attics and trunks of family members have been exhausted. I then give these treasures as presents to my friends and relatives.

I challenge you to begin a campaign in your own community to “rescue” handkerchiefs from a fate of obsolescence. Your family members and friends will be happy to be the beneficiaries of these lovely antique items. The current flu season provides an excellent opportunity to send handkerchiefs as gifts. You will not only be helping to prevent the spread of germs. You will be doing your part to save a very important part of civilized behavior.

Posted November 11, 2009

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