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Telephone Etiquette


The Telephone Call

Everywhere in these days one hears the same story. The American woman in her home, whether in city or country, is becoming as dependent upon the telephone as her husband in his store or office. She orders the family dinner by telephone, upbraids her dressmaker by telephone and electioneers by telephone for the presidency of her club. If she happens to live in one of the houses equipped with the latest pattern of telephone apparatus she gives her orders to the cook in the kitchen without leaving her chair in the sitting-room, for the telephone has taken the place of the speaking-tube in the up-to-date city residence. No habit grows by what it feeds on more rapidly than the telephone habit.

Things have come to such a pass that an elaborate code of telephone etiquette has come into being. A first rule has been formulated to the effect that messages shall be sent only to social equals. It is a breach of good telephone form for Mrs. A to ask her servant to call up Mrs. B; and Mrs. B, if snubbed in that way, would be quite satisfied in cutting Mrs. A’s acquaintance. Of course, it is possible for Mrs. A to send her message by means of a servant, but in order not to give offence it is necessary that Mrs. A’s servant repeat Mrs. A’s message to Mrs. B’s servant and that Mrs. B’s servant take the message to Mrs. B.

When, however, Mrs. A calls for Mrs. B it is to be expected that a servant may respond. In that case it is perfectly proper for Mrs. A to give the servant a message for Mrs. B, but care must be observed if, for instance, an invitation to drive or to dinner is being extended, that it be expressed in language as carefully chosen as any that a gentlewoman would use in a written note. In general, Mrs. B, if she is at all punctilious, will prefer to go to the telephone and to accept or decline the invitation personally. If she permits the servant to make the reply it is incumbent upon her to have the message worded with a formality equal to that used by Mrs. A.

“The Telephone in Home Life” – New Era Illustrated Magazine (1904)

The Etiquette of Bowing


Church Parade, Hyde Park by John Sanderson Wells, 1899

As regards the recognition of friends or acquaintances, it is the privilege of a lady to take the initiative, by being the first to bow. A gentleman should not raise his hat to a lady until she has accorded him this mark of recognition, although the act of bowing is a simultaneous action on the part of both lady and gentleman, as a lady would hardly bestow a bow upon a gentleman not prepared to return it.
The bow between intimate acquaintances takes the character, when given by a lady, of a familiar nod in place of a stiff bow.

When a gentleman returns the bow of a lady he should do so by distinctly taking his hat off and as quickly replacing it, not merely raising it slightly, as formerly, and if he is an intimate acquaintance or friend, he should act in a similar manner.
In France and on the Continent generally, the rule of bowing is reversed, and the gentleman is the first to bow to the lady, instead of the lady to the gentleman.
Between ladies but slightly acquainted, the one of highest rank should be the first to bow to the other; between ladies of equal rank it is immaterial which of the two bows first.

A lady should not bow to persons only known to her by sight, although she may frequently have seen them in the company of her friends.

A lady should bow to a gentleman, either a friend or acquaintance, even when he is walking with either a lady or gentleman, with whom she is unacquainted.

Gentlemen do not raise their hats in recognition of each other, but simply nod, when not walking with ladies, save when a vast difference exists in rank or age.

When a gentleman meets another—a friend of his— walking with a lady or ladies, with whom he himself is unacquainted, he should raise his hat and look straight before him, not at the lady or ladies.

A lady should not bow to another who, being a stranger to her, has addressed a few remarks to her at an afternoon party, as the fact of meeting at the house of a mutual friend does not constitute an acquaintanceship, and does not authorise a future bowing acquaintance.

Ladies, as a rule, are not too ready to bow to those whom they have merely conversed with in a casual way. In the first place, they are not quite certain of being remembered, and nothing is more disconcerting and disagreeable than to bow to a person who does not return it through forgetfulness of the one who has given it, or through shortsightedness, or through actual intention. Short-sighted people are always offending in the matter of not bowing, and almost every third person, comparatively speaking, complains of being more or less short-sighted; thus it behooves ladies to discover for themselves the strength and length of sight possessed by their new acquaintances, or the chances are that their bow may never be returned, or they may continue to labour under the impression that they have received a cut direct; thus many pleasant acquaintances are lost through this misapprehension, and many erroneous impressions created.

A bowing acquaintance is a difficult and tiresome one to maintain for any length of time, when opportunities do not arise for increasing it The irksomeness of keeping it up is principally experienced by persons meeting day after day in the Park or on public promenades, riding, driving, or walking, more especially when it is tacitly understood that the acquaintance should not develop into a further acquaintance.

It would be considered discourteous to discontinue a bowing acquaintance which has once been commenced.

To know a gentleman by sight through having frequently seen him at balls and parties, does not give a lady the right to bow to him, even though she may have stood beside him for some twenty minutes or so on a crowded staircase, and may have received some slight civility from him.

A lady who has received a little service from a stranger would gladly acknowledge it at any subsequent meeting by a pleasant bow, but as bowing to a gentleman argues an acquaintance with him, and as in such cases as these an acquaintance does not exist, etiquette provides no compromise in the matter. Therefore, if a young lady takes her own line, and rather than appear ungracious bows to a gentleman who has not been introduced to her either directly or indirectly, it is a breach of etiquette on her part; and as to do an unconventional thing is not desirable, the innumerable little services which ladies receive in general society are not further acknowledged beyond the thanks expressed at the moment of their being received.

Bows vary materially: there is the friendly bow, the distant bow, the ceremonious bow, the deferential bow, the familiar bow, the reluctant bow, and so on, according to the feelings that actuate individuals in their intercourse with each other.
When a bowing acquaintance only exists between ladies and gentlemen, and they meet perhaps two or three times during the day, and are not sufficiently intimate to speak, they do not usually bow more than once, when thus meeting in park or promenade.

Manners and Rules of Good Society: or, Solecisms to be Avoided (1913)

Writing the “Bread-and-Butter” Letter, or a “Collins”


Mr. Collins Edwardian house parties could be naughty, raucous, and elegant, but they were ruled by the strictest etiquette, ranging from how much to tip the servants, when to bathe, and when one was permitted to retire for bed! After a successful Saturday-to-Monday or week-long house party, courtesy demanded a note sent to the hostess expressing appreciation for the hospitality received, and this note–as I learned in Diana Cooper’s memoirs–was called a “bread-and-butter” letter or a “Collins” after the obsequious, long-winded, and pompous clergyman cousin of Mr. Bennet.

Why is this called a Bread-and-Butter letter? I turn to The Word Detective, who breaks down the possible origins of the phrase:

“Bread,” being the staff of life and all, is, of course, a very old word, though it’s interesting to note that in Old English the word simply meant “piece of food, morsel,” not necessarily the stuff cranked out by Pepperidge Farm. “Butter” is even older, and comes from the Greek “boutyron,” meaning literally “cow cheese.” By the way, that “staff of life” business comes from the Bible, where “to break the staff of bread” means to cut off the food supply that supports a people (as a walking staff supports an individual).

“Bread and butter” has been used, since at least the early 18th century, to mean “everyday kinds of food” (“It was strictly a bread and butter dinner, not a snail in sight”), but more often in a figurative sense to mean “means of living, basic financial support,” often of a distinctly unglamorous sort (“Sure, I dabble in tech stocks, but repossessing cars is my bread and butter”).

The logic of “bread and butter letter,” a term first appearing in print in the US in the early 20th century, seems to fall somewhere between those two uses. The writer is thanking his or her hosts for their hospitality (and food), but the letter is also a basic social formality, not likely to contain any exciting content. A “bread and butter” note may not be eagerly awaited, but it’s the sort of thing expected and probably noticed most in its absence.

This letter could never be too flattering or effusive, as the following examples attest:

Dear Candace,
Six o’clock last night found me home with the pleasantest memories of happy days passed with you in your lovely country place. It was so sweet of you to have that delicious basket luncheon prepared for me, which combined with magazines and papers so thoughtfully given me by Mr. Endicott helped to shorten an otherwise rather tiresome journey.
I am sending you a new book just out by the author we both enjoy so much and hope it pleases you as much as the others.
My love to you and yours.
Affectionately yours, Date Adelaide Colton

Dear Edith,
We arrived home still breathless from the exhilaration of those wonderful days spent with you. You were a dear to give us such a jolly time, and John and I are looking forward to the time when you can come and spend a while with us. Although we have no glorious lake for skating, we may, perhaps, be able to find a few other pastimes to interest you in our big city, although I know that anything short of Tinker’s Pond will prove a poor substitute.
Thank you, dear girl, for having us with you. John joins me in sending best regards to all the family.
Affectionately yours,
Mary K. Grainer.

My dear Miss Blank,
Tinker’s Corners is a landmark in my small geography of “special selections.” I am sure that the others whom you entertained so royally last week must feel as I do. The warmth of your hospitality will leave a glow in our memory for some time to come. With kindest greeting to your dear mother and brother, I am,
Cordially yours,
Helen D. Westvale.

In American idiom this type of letter was sometimes known as “the roofer,” no doubt in reference to the ego-elevating phrases!

This is now known (more mundanely, in my opinion) as the “Thank You Note”–and even that has grown quite rare. So now that you know what a Bread-and-Butter letter or Collins is, try you hand at writing a few to others. I’m sure many would be surprised and pleased to receive such a flattering note.

The Social Letter by Elizabeth Myers
Social Letters Made Easy by Gabrielle Rosiere
The Rainbow Comes and Goes by Lady Diana Cooper