How to Hold Your Face

Last week we learned from our 16th Century manners expert Erasmus that the well-mannered should keep their noses “free from any filthy collection of mucus.” But it’s not just the nose – the entire face must be regulated in order to display a proper sense of civility, and after reading through his list, I have realized that I would definitely be classified as uncivil.

He starts with the eyes. They should be “calm, respectful and steady.” And then he gives a long laundry list of all the things the eyes shouldn’t be – shameless (too insolent), grim (too fierce), or furtive (too treacherous). And there’s a list of things your eyes shouldn’t do, such as gape (like an idiot), blink (shows fickle nature) and roll (a feature of insanity). I probably run through each of those every hour, so that would make me a shameless idiot, one with a fierce and yet fickle nature.

Then there’s the eyebrows, which should be smooth, not contracted or arched or “pressed down over the eyes like those of an evil schemer.”

George Washington demonstrates proper facial etiquette

Look closely - do you see the brows of an evil schemer?

Really—I did not make that up. Now I know how to describe the eyebrows of the villain in my next book!

In any case, the forehead should be “cheerful and smooth” not “menacing like a bull” and also not “lined with wrinkles.” Sorry, but as for myself, without Botox, those wrinkles aren’t going anywhere. And I’ve earned the right to be menacing if I want to be.

Once you’ve gained control of eyes, brows and forehead, it’s time to inventory the rest of your face.

The cheeks need to have just the right amount of air in them. If they’re puffed out, it’s a sign of arrogance, but if they’re deflated, it’s a sign of “mental despair.” Check your owner’s manual and keep the cheeks properly inflated and rotate them every 15,000 smiles.

Now we’re down to the mouth. If it’s closed too firmly, you give the impression that you’re “afraid of inhaling someone else’s breath,” but if it’s gaping open, you look “like an idiot.”

The French etiquette manual (Rules of Civility) studied by George Washington in his youth has many similar rules for the face with an added constriction against raising one eyebrow and requiring you to stand far enough away from others that you” bedew no mans face with your Spittle.”

If you yawn, you must cover your face with your hand—no surprise there—but you must also learn to laugh the correct amount. “To laugh at every word or deed is the sign of a fool,” Erasmus explains, “to laugh at none, the sign of a blockhead.” I kind of thought blockhead was synonymous with fool, or maybe idiot, so I won’t be able to tell whether I’m laughing too much or not enough, and I may have a gaping eye or mouth in the process.

I’ve been poking fun at these rules, but really they are essentially still considered good manners today.

I think now we tend to view many of the rules regulating the body as basic common sense. They are things we observe from others or are taught by our parents. But that obviously was not always the case, or Erasmus would not have taken the trouble to write them out (and people would not have paid to buy his book). One reason George Washington inspired almost reverent respect from others was that he studied the rules of civility so carefully that he was almost superhuman in his control of basic bodily expression. He had an unnatural dignity (like a statue) that he probably practiced in front of a mirror until it became second nature. In fact, he had such a commanding, royal presence that had he could have easily stepped into the role of king of the new United States, as some urged him to do.

Of course, he did not, but as Father of our Country, his image is still stamped on everything from legal tender to legal advertising . And note that in each picture, his cheeks are properly inflated, his eyes are neither shameless nor grim, and his forehead is not menacing in the least.

 

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