8 Lessons on How to be Polite from Victorian Ladies

First published in 1860 by Florence Hartley and now available for free in the public domain, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness provides full directions for correct manners, deportment, and conversation that are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.

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Here are 8 timeless nuggets of advice from a Victorian lady that will help you make more friends, earn more respect, and increase your social currency.

1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

politeness is goodness of heart put into daily practice; there can be no true politeness without kindness, purity, singleness of heart, and sensibility.

Florence Hartley warned people against believing that politeness was merely a façade to hide the truth.

She explained that extending courtesy to everyone takes effort and willpower.

In other words, it isn’t easy, but it is worth the effort.

Do’s and don’ts from Florence Hartley:

Do try to set people at ease.

Do practice self-sacrificing, friendly, and unselfish behavior—be genuinely, in word and deed, polite.

Don’t say things in public that may hurt others’ feelings.

Don’t make others feel uncomfortable by putting your own convenience first.

Politeness is a genuine desire to show neighborly love. Without a good heart, politeness is hypocritical and deceitful.

True politeness is the language of a good heart, and those possessing that heart will never, under any circumstances, be rude.

2. Be a Good Listener

Conversation by Mihaly Munkacsy – 1881
The art of conversation consists in the exercise of two fine qualities. You must originate, and you must sympathize; you must possess at the same time the habit of communicating and of listening attentively. The union is rare but irresistible.

Unless you’re with friends, focus your attention squarely on the person you’re conversing with.

Show genuine interest in what the other person is saying.

Do not be distracted by anything said in another group.

Remember, it takes two to make a conversation, so don’t steal the spotlight. Give the other person an opportunity to speak, but avoid silence, or answering in monosyllables.

If your companion relates an incident or tells a story, don’t interrupt with questions part way through—even if you don’t understand something. Wait until she’s finished, and then ask questions.

There is nothing more annoying than being interrupted. Never break in upon another conversation. Wait until the conversation is finished before addressing the person you wanted to speak to.

3. Rudeness repels. Courtesy attracts.

I am not amused. Well … maybe just a little.

Never meet rudeness in others by being rude yourself; even the most impolite will feel more shame by your courtesy, than by attempting to respond in kind.

Politeness forbids any display of resentment.

A favor becomes twice as valuable if granted with courtesy, and the pain of a refusal is softened when expressed with polite regret.

Never by word or action notice the defects of another; always be charitable.

Courtesy is genuine when delivered from the heart.

The polished surface throws back the arrow.
True politeness is being polite at all times, and under all circumstances.

4. Put Your Audience First

People should not talk to please themselves, but to please those who hear them. This helps the speaker ask themselves some important questions:

Is what I’m saying worth hearing?

Is there sufficient wit or sense in what I’m about to say?

Am I adapting my conversation appropriately for the time, place, and audience?

Do’s and Don’ts from Florence Hartley:

Do take care in conversation to avoid topics that might be painful for your companion to hear.

Do turn to another subject as quickly as possible if you perceive you have caused anxiety for your friend.

Don’t hurt the feelings of another for the sake of appearing witty or smart.

Don’t try to impress people with your knowledge, but listen as well as talk, and modestly follow their lead.

Avoid affectation; it is the sure test of a deceitful, vulgar mind. The best cure is to try to have those virtues which you would affect, and then they will appear naturally.

5. Do not criticize or correct anyone

Fair Critics by Charles Courtney Curran – 1887

Florence Hartley strongly advises against correcting others on mispronounced words or grammatical errors that might arise during a conversation.

If you must correct someone, speak to them in private—never in public—and be gentle and kind with how you phrase your critique.

Don’t watch for faults in people, waiting for an opportunity to show your superior wisdom. Let modesty and kind feeling be your guide.

If your companion uses words or expressions which you do not understand, do not feign knowledge or be ashamed of your ignorance, but frankly ask for an explanation.

If you can’t remember names involved in relating an incident, it’s better to avoid the story altogether.

Don’t use substitutes for proper names or places and never phrases like “What-d-ya call it”, “Thingummy”, “What’s his name”.

Do not complete sentences for anyone or anticipate the punchline of a joke or anecdote. Whilst you may have heard the story before, it may be new to others, so let the storyteller finish in their own words.

Be careful, when traveling, not to criticize the native city or country of others by trying to prove how your home is better.

Never discredit an absent friend. It is the height of rudeness. If you put someone down whom others admire, you will most likely be viewed as envious and it will be your own character that comes into question, not the person you are criticizing.

6. Honor the confidentiality of conversations

A Little Tea and Gossip by Robert Payton Reid – 1887

Florence Hartley goes to great lengths to remind us that what people tell us should be assumed to be in confidence.

We should avoid the temptation to tell others what may seem like irresistibly juicy gossip. This is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges given the ease with which we can pass on information today.

But if we abide by it, we are more likely to earn others’ respect and make long-lasting, genuine friendships.

Amongst well-bred persons, every conversation is considered in a measure confidential. A lady or gentleman tacitly confides in you when he (or she) tells you an incident which may cause trouble if repeated, and you violate a confidence as much in such a repetition, as if you were bound over to secrecy. Remember this.

7. The Best Way to Win an Argument is to Avoid One

Avoid argument; it is not a conversation, and frequently leads to ill feeling.

If you are unfortunately drawn into an argument, keep your temper under control, and if you find your adversary is getting agitated, try to introduce a different topic.

The Argument by Albert Beck Wenzell

8. Always be learning.

Read widely and stay up to date on current events.

To be able to converse really well, you must read much, treasure in your memory the pearls of what you read; you must have a quick comprehension, observe passing events, and listen attentively whenever there is any opportunity of acquiring knowledge. A quick tact is necessary, too, in conversation.