What were the purposes and pitfalls of introductions a century ago?
April 26, 2017 9:24 PM   Subscribe

Emily Post devotes her entire second chapter to the etiquette of introductions. The Victorian-era Lady Constance Eleanora Caroline Howard likewise spends 20 pages on the subject. But what were the larger purposes and goals of introductions?

I'm assuming here that we are not talking about people who need to work, so it's not a commercial endeavor. I get that it's undesirable for some reason to be introduced to the wrong people, meaning people of either much higher or lower social standing, but I don't understand the logic. E.g., "On no account should [introductions] ever be indiscriminately made; and the amount of tact and knowledge of the world and discretion required, among those who make the introductions, must necessarily be very considerable." Did the making of an introduction oblige one in some way, such as requiring dinner invitations? I get that for very high ranking people it would become an inconvenience if one acquired too many hangers on, but it doesn't seem that's the case for an ordinary upper-class person needs to read an etiquette book.

The etiquette books are so concerned with the following of the rules that the reasoning behind them is obscure to me. Is it a desire to preserve the social order of the world? Why did people care so much about whom they were introduced to?
posted by wnissen to Human Relations (12 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: For a man, speaking familiarly, or in some cases at all, to a woman to whom you have not been introduced is a giant giant dick move, as every nice person agreed, in theory and in etiquette manuals if not in life at all times. they did not say "dick move" in those days but they had the concept.

so if you blithely introduce a man to a woman who may not wish to be made known to him, you make life very difficult for her, because he then has some license and social sanction to bug her whenever he runs into her. you have taken away her ability to look at him frostily and say "I do not believe we have been introduced," and turn away ostentatiously. now she has to produce some complicated excuse to snub him because cutting him when the two of you are officially acquainted is a whole big THING.

this is all just a side issue, not the whole complicated deal, but it's the part of it I think I understand the best because a lot of the difficulties are the same today. so much so that it pains me a little bit to write any of this in past tense.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:44 PM on April 26, 2017 [52 favorites]

I always thought that by introducing someone you are vouching for them. Actually vouching to the two being introduced for each other.
posted by AugustWest at 10:00 PM on April 26, 2017 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Introduction establishes a kind of social connection. It serves as a vouching for the respectability of the person being introduced. That person can then reasonably expect to be able to speak to you at gatherings, write you letters (if you are the same gender), and generally try to build towards the kind of acquaintance that might require the mutual conferring of social favors. (Or business favors. You are not correct that such people had no interest in the making of money.)
posted by praemunire at 10:06 PM on April 26, 2017 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Also, whom you "consent to know" in some sense reflects upon your own moral character and social standing. An inappropriate introduction can thus encumber you with someone whose presence in your social circle speaks badly of you.
posted by praemunire at 10:11 PM on April 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

Think of it as giving out someone's mobile number now, I think?
posted by potrzebie at 11:09 PM on April 26, 2017 [27 favorites]

Best answer: The etiquette manuals need to be treated with care, as they tend to copy the manners of the 'ton' and the highest aristocracy, who could afford to be very choosy about the people they mixed with. (Think of the efforts you'd have to make to get an introduction to an A-list celebrity today.) They're not necessarily a reliable guide to middle-class manners and behaviour.

That said, there's a scene in Jane Austen's unfinished novel The Watsons which says more about the rituals of introduction than many etiquette manuals. Emma is at the ball with her chaperone Mrs Edwards. She is decidedly the belle of the ball. 'A new face, and a very pretty one, could not be slighted. Her name was whispered from one party to another.' Some of the attention is desirable, some not so desirable.

First we get a lesson in how to make a proper introduction:
'Your goodness to Charles, my dear Miss Watson, brings all his family upon you. Give me leave to introduce my brother, Mr Howard.' Emma curtsied, the gentleman bowed, made a hasty request for the honour of her hand in the next two dances, to which as hasty an affirmative was given, and they were immediately impelled in opposite directions.

Emma was well pleased with the circumstance. There was a quietly cheerful, gentleman-like air in Mr Howard which suited her.
Next, we get a lesson in the wrong sort of introduction. Emma has already been given a tactful warning about Tom Musgrave, who has inherited a fortune of eight or nine hundred pounds a year which is thought to have given him 'rather an unsettled turn'. Then Emma overhears Musgrave talking to his friend Lord Osborne and plotting to get an introduction to her:
'Why do not you dance with that beautiful Emma Watson? I want you to dance with her, and I will come and stand by you.'

'I was determining on it this very moment, my Lord. I'll be introduced and dance with her directly.'

'Aye, do. Then, if you find she does not want much talking to, you can introduce me by and by.'
Sure enough, Tom Musgrave comes up to Emma's party and tries to force his way in:
By requesting Mrs Edwards aloud to do him the honour of presenting him to Miss Watson, he left that good lady without any choice in the business, but that of testifying by the coldness of her manner that she did it unwillingly. The honour of dancing with her was solicited without loss of time.
And there you see the importance of introductions. Once Tom Musgrave has been introduced to Emma, he can not only dance with her, he can introduce her to Lord Osborne or anyone else he pleases. That could be good for Emma (she gets to dance with a lord), but it's also risky for her, because it takes her into a new social circle where her chaperone can't protect her.

For Jane Austen, introductions are basically a way of protecting women from unwanted male attention. Other novelists turn this round: many of Trollope's characters, for example, are upwardly-mobile young men looking for marriageable girls. In the world of Trollope's novels, introductions are a way of regulating social mobility: they give ambitious, talented and newly-rich people a way of moving up in the world, while at the same time providing a mechanism for keeping them at a distance.
posted by verstegan at 3:24 AM on April 27, 2017 [42 favorites]

Best answer: Also, bear in mind that your connections were everything. Need a job? Your friends found one for you. Needed to rent a house? Your friends found one for you. Female, and needing a place to live? Your friends gave you a home. Needed to borrow money? You could go to the cent per centers who were loan sharks, or you would borrow it from friends, usually with only your word as your bond. Since that started to work out badly people would write IOU's, and if you defaulted you could end up getting thrown into debtors prison - but everybody lived on credit because most people were paid quarterly. They used a gold standard which meant that there was much less currency around than they needed so people had a tendency to "live on their expectations"

If you were a servant, or an employee you would be pensioned off by your master. - I mean, assuming you didn't die after a very brief illness which was the norm. If you were to be let go, they tried to find you a new position. If they didn't find you a new position it was sad and shocking. You were after all a member of the household. Letters of the time are full of these inquiries - "The son of an old friend..." "has been in my employ above twelve years...." "my friend is looking for a housemaid with greater than usual skill with the needle...."

So who you knew was EVERYTHING. If you introduced someone to your friends that meant that you were also vouching for her servants, her son, her credit. It meant you had vetted her and considered her suitable to be part of your closed community.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:30 AM on April 27, 2017 [22 favorites]

Best answer: You might be interested in the classic book Confidence Men and Painted Women, which is really specifically about middle-class Americans in the mid-nineteenth-century, but which I think might contain some insights into this question. The author, Karen Halttunen, argues that middle-class Americans were newly mobile and urban in this period, and they had to interact with people whose lineage and character they couldn't know. All they had to go on was how people seemed, and they became obsessed with the idea that people's outward appearance might be fraud. How could you know if someone was trying to trick you? The confidence man, who seemed like a legit businessman but was really a swindler, and the painted woman, who seemed beautiful, but it was all a trick played by cosmetics, became the emblems of this anxiety. She looks at how middle-class culture became obsessed with manifestations of sincerity, in an attempt to quell all this anxiety.

So it occurs to me that something similar might have been going on with upper-class British people. Because of the industrial revolution, there were all these new people with enough wealth to mimic upper-class social conventions. It must have been tough to keep track of who was legit and who was faking it, especially at the margins. Introductions provided a way to keep track of who was of your social status, and therefore someone you might consider getting into a business arrangement with or considering a suitable match for your child, and who was an interloper who was just really good at faking it (or worse, a con man.)
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:59 AM on April 27, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm in the middle of a deep dive on The Last Podcast on the Left's archives and on one of their episodes about H. H. Holmes they noted (between the yelling and wang jokes) that it was super easy to completely reinvent yourself back them. You just pick another name, go to another town, and suddenly you are that person. The introduction system was a way to prevent that (vouching) and keep social cliques/classes free from outsiders.

Of course, the system could be worked to nefarious advantage as all you needed to do was target the weakest link of a circle, gain an introduction there, and use that to move up the chain. Still, the system would limit the damage that could be done if the bad actor slips up, creates a scandal, and is forced to reinvent themselves later.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:38 AM on April 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

A modern version of the "it introduces a social obligation" answer: If you use facebook, think of one's ability to "suggest friends" on facebook. You probably wouldn't suggest a friend for someone unless you knew both parties already knew each other or you had spoken about them to each other and were quite certain they would enjoy knowing each other. If you successfully link two people up on facebook, they might now get a fair amount of content from the other person. You would not want to be responsible for that being unpleasant for either of them.
posted by jocelmeow at 7:55 AM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Verstegan's answer made me think of Pride & Prejudice, where it's a Very Big Deal that Mr. Darcy wants to introduce his sister to Lizzy. As everyone's said above, it's about so much more than just saying "how do you do" to each other.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:16 AM on April 27, 2017

Best answer: A poem germane to the question: Etiquette by W.S. Gilbert, in which two Englishmen are stranded on a desert island, but can't talk to each other because they have not been introduced.
How they wished an introduction to each other they had had
When on board The Ballyshannon! And it drove them nearly mad
To think how very friendly with each other they might get,
If it wasn't for the arbitrary rule of etiquette!
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:46 AM on April 28, 2017

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