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Time changes a lot of things. In the last 200-300 years, the whole spectrum of attitudes and behaviors has rotated leaving us in a place that is almost unrecognizable to where we were. One of the areas in which the greatest change has occurred is in etiquette and behavioral expectations within society.

Once upon a time, the standards were incredibly high for how to conduct oneself in civilized company, with the intricacies of the British rules of formal society extending their hold over the Atlantic. It can be really interesting to look back on the attitudes of the 18th century and see how etiquette has evolved or devolved as the case may be. So let’s look at how one would have gotten by in the world of 18th Century etiquette and behavior.

Social Classes

Social classes were the guiding principle to expectations of behavior in the 18th Century. They were rigid boundaries between different types of people that transcended location and even, in some instances, transcended wealth. Class status was achieved through birth or through marriage and clung to individuals throughout their lives. “There were expectations about the behavior and dress of people based on what class they belonged to. A member of the aristocracy, for example, would be expected to dress in formal, refined attire throughout every day and behave with the utmost attention to rules of etiquette”, explains Harold Kingsby, tutor at Writinity and ResearchPapersUK. The distinct social classes would rarely fraternize, and on the occasions where close, sustained contact was required there would be an understanding of the appropriate way that each party ought to be behaving toward the other party. The social hierarchy was linked to earlier structures such as the feudal system and is one of the key areas in which society has since changed. Social classes still very much exist of course, but there is much less of an onus on people to ‘play by the rules’ of their position in society. Similarly, people tend to treat each other in a more balanced way, altering their behavior for one another less than in the 18th century.

General Behavior

There were certain general standards of etiquette that applied broadly to ‘civilized’ interactions, particularly in regard to relations between men and women. Men were expected to identify unmarried or un-betrothed women of a suitable nature and approach them to make their courting intentions known. Often, fraternizing between men and women would happen in the context of a ball, where the offering and acceptance of dances would indicate a woman’s interest and give her a chance to identify her field of suitors. “Women would generally owe gentlemen at least a single dance to avoid offending the hostess. This rather roundabout logic is explained by the fact that the hostess of a dance (and the proceeding supper) was responsible for the choice and ‘quality’ of invitees. Were a lady to reject a gentleman, it would be considered an attack on the hostess’ choice”, explains Emma Elbridge, historian at DraftBeyond and LastMinuteWriting.

Men and women were not to be together alone and would normally be required to have a chaperone present if they did desire to speak to one another in relative privacy. Courting was a formal process more than an emotional one, though, of course, a gentleman would have a better chance if he were to express himself romantically to the woman. Sexual relations, even kissing in the strictest atmospheres, were completely outlawed before marriage, though of course, that was a rule that would have been violated at times.

Drunkenness or disorderly behavior, along with coarse language, insults, harassment or any sort of violence would result in expulsion from events and almost an ex-communication from society if a suitable apology were not proffered and accepted by the insulted party. It was a high stakes game where a foot out of line could cost you dearly.


Overall, etiquette and behavioral norms were very different from our modern understandings. It was an entirely different world which seemed designed to counteract instinctive human nature at every turn. But it was a fascinating one and it is quite easy to see how it has shaped social interactions 200-300 years on.

Ashley Halsey is a professional lifestyle writer, working at LuckyAssignments and GumEssays, writing on all sorts of topics relating to travel and personal development. She spends most of her spare time traveling with her family and gathering information for her latest piece of writing.