Manners and social usages,


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It is a comfort to those of us who have felt the cold perspiration start on the brow, at the prospect of entering an unaccustomed sphere, to remember that the best men and women whom the world has known have been, in their day, afflicted with shyness. Indeed, it is to the past that we must refer when the terrible disease seizes us, when the tongue becomes dry in the mouth, the hands tremble, and the knees knock together.

Who does not pity the trembling boy when, on the evening of his first party, he succumbs to this dreadful malady ? The color comes in spots on his face, and his hands are cold and clammy. He sits down on the stairs and wishes he were dead. A strange sensation is running down his back. “Come, Peter, cheer up,” his mother says, not daring to tell him how she sympathizes with him. He is afraid to be afraid, he is ashamed to be ashamed. Nothing can equal this moment of agony. The whole room looks black before him as some chipper little girl, who knows not the meaning of the word “embarrassment,” comes to greet him. He crawls off to the friendly shelter of a group of boys, and sees the “craven of the playground,

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the dunce of the school,” with a wonderful self-possession, lead off in the german with the prettiest girl. As he grows older, and becomes the young man whose duty it is to go to dinners and afternoon parties, this terrible weakness will again overcome him. He has done well at college, can make a very good speech at the club suppers, but at the door of a parlor he feels himself a drivelling idiot. He assumes a courage, if he has it not, and dashes into a room (which is full of people) as he would attack a forlorn hope. There is safety in numbers, and he retires to a corner.

When he goes to a tea-party a battery of feminine eyes gazes at him with a critical perception of his youth and rawness. Knowing that he ought to be supremely graceful and serene, he stumbles over a footstool, and hears a suppressed giggle. He reaches his hostess, and wishes she were the “cannon’s mouth,” in order that his sufferings might be ended; but she is not. His agony is to last the whole evening. Tea-parties are eternal: they never end; they are like the old-fashioned ideas of a future state of torment–they grow hotter and more stifling. As the evening advances towards eternity he upsets the cream-jug. He summons all his will-power, or he would run away. No; retreat is impossible. One must die at the post of duty. He thinks of all the formulas of courage–“None but the brave deserve the fair,” “He either fears his fate too much, or his deserts are small,” “There is no such coward as self-consciousness,” etc. But these maxima are of no avail. His feet are feet of clay, not

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good to stand on, only good to stumble with. His hands are cold, tremulous, and useless. There is a very disagreeable feeling in the back of his neck, and a spinning sensation about the brain. A queer rumbling seizes his ears. He has heard that “conscience makes cowards of us all.” What mortal sin has he committed? His moral sense answers back, “None. You are only that poor creature, a bashful youth.” And he bravely calls on all his nerves, muscles, and brains to help him through this ordeal. He sees the pitying eyes of the woman to whom he is talking turn away from his countenance (on which he knows that all his miserable shyness has written itself in legible characters). “And this humiliation, too?” he asks of himself, as she brings him the usual refuge of the awkward–a portfolio of photographs to look at. Women are seldom troubled, at the age at which men suffer, with bashfulness or awkwardness. It is as if Nature thus compensated the weaker vessel. Cruel are those women, however, and most to be reprobated, who laugh at a bashful man!

The sufferings of a shy man would fill a volume. It is a nervous seizure for which no part of his organization is to blame; he cannot reason it away, he can only crush it by enduring it: “To bear is to conquer our Fate.” Some men, finding the play not worth the candle, give up society and the world; others go on, suffer, and come out cool veterans who fear no tea-party, however overwhelming it may be.

It is the proper province of parents to have their children taught all the accomplishments of the body,

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that they, like the ancient Greeks, may know that every muscle will obey the brain. A shy, awkward boy should be trained in dancing, fencing, boxing; he should be instructed in music, elocution, and public speaking; he should be sent into society, whatever it may cost him at first, as certainly as he should be sent to the dentist’s. His present sufferings may save him from lifelong annoyance.

To the very best men–the most learned, the most graceful, the most eloquent, the most successful–has come at some one time or other the dreadful agony of bashfulness. Indeed, it is the higher order of man being that it most surely attacks; it is the precursor of many excellences, and, like the knight’s vigil, if patiently and bravely berne, the knight is twice the hero. It is this recollection, which can alone assuage the sufferer, that he should always carry with him. He should remember that the compound which he calls himself is of all things most mixed.

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” Two antagonistic races–it may be his Grandfather Brown and his Grandmother Williams–are struggling in him for the mastery; and their exceedingly opposite natures are pulling his arms and legs asunder. He has to harmonize this antagonism before he becomes himself, and it adds much to his confusion to see that poor little pretender, Tom Titmouse, talking and laughing and making merry. There are, however, no ancestral diversities fighting for the possession of Tom Titmouse. The grandfathers and grandmothers of Tom Titmouse

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were not people of strong character; they were a decorous race on both sides, with no heavy intellectual burdens, good enough people who wore well. But does our bashful man know this? No. He simply remembers a passage in the “Odyssey” which Tom Titmouse could not construe, but which the bashful man read, to the delight of the tutor:

“O gods! How beloved he is, and how honored by all men to whatsoever land or city he comes ! He brings much booty from Troy, but we, having accomplished the same journey, are returning home having empty hands!” And this messenger from Troy is Tom Titmouse!

Not that all poor scholars and inferior men have fine manners, nor do all good scholars and superior men fail in the drawing-room. No rule is without an exception. It is, however, a comfort to those who are awkward and shy to remember that many of the great and good and superior men who live in history have suffered, even as they suffer, from the pin-pricks of bashfulness. The first refuge of the inexperienced, bashful person is often to assume a manner of extreme hauteur. This is, perhaps, a natural fence–or defence; it is, indeed, a very convenient armor, and many a woman has fought her battle behind it through life. No doubt it is the armor of the many so-called frigid persons, male and female, who must either suffer the pangs of bashfulness, or affect a coldness which they do not feel. Some people are naturally encased in a column of ice which they cannot break, but within is a fountain which would burst out at the lips in words of kindliness if only the

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tongue could speak them. These limitations of nature are very strange; we cannot explain them. It is only by referring to Grandfather Brown and Grandmother Williams again that we understand them at all. One person will be furnished with very large feet and very small hands, with a head disproportionately large for the body, or one as remarkably small. Differences of race must account for these eccentricities of nature; we cannot otherwise explain them, nor the mental antagonisms, But the awkward and the shy do not always take refuge in a cold manner; Sometimes they study manner as they would the small-sword exercise, and exploit it-with equal fervor. Exaggeration of manner is quite as common a refuge for these unfortunates as the other extreme of calmness. They render themselves ridiculous by the lowness of their bows and the vivid picturesqueness of their speech. They, as it were, burst the bounds of the calyx, and the flower opens too wide. Symmetry is lost, graceful outline is destroyed. Many a bashful man, thinking of Tom Titmouse, has become an acrobat in his determination to be lively and easy. He should remember the juste milieu, recommended by Shakspeare when he says,

“They are as sick that surfeit with too much.
As they that starve with nothing.”

The happy people who are born unconscious of their bodies, who grow through life more and more graceful, easy, cordial, and agreeable; the happy few Who were never bashful, never nervous, never had clammy

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hands, they need not read these pages–they are not written for such blessed eyes. It is for the well-meaning, but shy and awkward, people that the manners of artificial society are most useful.

For the benefit of such persons we must “improve a ceremonial nicety into a substantial duty,” else we shall see a cultivated scholar confused before a set of giggling girls, and a man who is all Wisdom, valor and learning, playing the donkey at an evening party. If he lack the inferior arts of polite behavior, who will take the trouble to discover a Sir Walter Raleigh behind his cravat?

A man who is constrained, uneasy, and ungraceful, can spoil the happiness of a dozen people. Therefore he is bound to create an artificial manner, if a natural one does not come to him, remembering always that “manners are shadows of virtues.”

The manners of artificial society have this to commend them: they meditate the greatest good to the greatest number. We do not like the word “artificial,” or to commend anything which is supposed to be the antipodes of the word “sincere,” but it is a recipe, a doctor’s prescription that we are recommending as a cure for a disease. “Good manners are to special societies what good morals are to society in general–their cement and their security. True politeness creates perfect ease and freedom; it and its essence is to treat others as you would have Others treat you.” Therefore, as you know how embarrassing embarrassment is to everybody else, strive not to be embarrassed.