It is truly interesting to trace our everyday behaviors – many of which we don’t give a second thought – back to their origins.
The earliest record of social practices may be found in the 3rd millennium BC in the writings of the Egyptian writer Ptahhote. Then came Confucius and on to King Louis XIV.
While some of the customs from long ago have remained fixtures in our modern society, there are many that have faded into obscurity and for good reason.
We have uncovered the explanations behind some of today’s common customs that managed to stick around.
Shaking hands is a common greeting. But do you have any clue who started it or why we continue to do it?
Dating back to Ancient Greece this greeting was a sign of equality and mutual respect.
It replaced bows and curtsies, while also serving as proof that both parties came unarmed.
In medieval Europe, the handshake became a powerful symbol of the bond between husband and wife. It was the final gesture of wedding ceremonies.
Today the handshake still represents respect and is seen as a welcoming gesture.
We use it in business and social interactions, but not so much in marriages.
Here in the United States, when someone sneezes, “Bless you” will often be heard immediately after.
It’s almost as much of a reflex as sneezing itself.
It is a rather strange custom if you think about it. We don’t acknowledge any other bodily functions with such dignity.
So how did this response originate?
The Greeks and Romans viewed it as a sign of wellness – a means of expelling bad spirits from the body – and would routinely offer blessings unto the sneezer.
However, centuries later, widespread fears brought on by the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1330 cast suspicion on the sneeze.
Pope Gregory VII called on the people of Europe to utter a short prayer, “Bless you”, after every sneeze to protect against the sickness.
And there you have it!
“Don’t put your elbows on the table!”
The origin of this classic motherly adage dates back to medieval times. Feasts were held in great halls and hundreds of people would eat together at long wooden tables.
While the food was often plentiful, space was not.
Furthermore, when dining in the presence of the lords and ladies of the realm, it was deemed “peasant-like” to hunch over one’s plate, guarding the food from others.
The act gave off an aura of distrust, and has since become a commonly repeated rule.
After a toast, it is tradition to clink glasses with fellow diners.
This iconic act of celebration comes from a morbid past. It was started with the intention of spilling a little of the other person’s drink into your own to demonstrate that neither party had poisoned the other’s glass.
The clink was a sign of good will, a feeling that has endured to today.
How We Hold Our Utensils
As all of our ASP grads know, there is a stark difference in dining styles once you cross the Atlantic.
In the United States, a “Zig-Zag” method is used, while our European neighbors predominantly eat “Continental.”
It is surprising to learn that the traditional European method was in fact this American style.
The modern dining divide resulted when British colonists sailed across the Atlantic, bringing their multi-step cutting method to the New World.
The colonists retained this dining style, but back in Europe, the Industrial Revolution brought a faster pace of life that left little room for the niceties and courtesies of the previous era, leading to the more streamlined Continental style.
If you enjoyed reading about the history of etiquette, then be sure to check out this article from National Geographic How Table Manners as We Know Them Were a Renaissance Invention.