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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Greeting Etiquette in the Georgian Era: Bowing, Curtsying, Handshaking, and Nodding

Publication Date: Feb 14, 2024


He displayed a magnificent leg.

Illustration of a gentleman bowing deeply to another and one doffing a hat
Two Gentlemen Meet - Both Doff by Mary Evans Picture Library

For this exploration into Georgian era culture, history, and daily life, we'll be looking at the situational etiquette of bowing/curtsying, handshaking/nodding, and the rules therein. As we move through the variables, there will be some repetition for emphasis and overlap, especially as the situation changes or exceptions arise.

 

One of the most important takeaways is the Georgian era saw greeting etiquette shift drastically from bowing deeply to proffering a hand. As we move into the Regency era, bowing and curtsying was limited to specific situations only, rather than being the norm as it had been for most of the 18th century. As we reach the Regency era, the preference for greetings is handshaking or a cordial nod of the head, not the customary bowing and curtsying.

 


Rule Determinates & Expectations

 

The general rules to determine if one should bow/curtsy depended on:


(a) if the two are equals,

(b) if this is the first introduction or a subsequent greeting,

(c) the basis of the introduction (to dance or to become acquainted),

(d) if the two are of different social ranks,

(e) the gender of the two (if two women, if two men, if man and woman),

(f) the ages of the two,

(g) the location of the greeting.


Important to know is that the early half of the Georgian era saw formal bowing and curtsying as the expected greeting, but by the Regency, not only had it fallen out of fashion in favor of the head nod, the doffed hat, the slight bob, or the handshake, the rules of when and where and to whom one should bow had minimized. A great article to read about this is Penelope J. Corfield's article from Cambridge University Press, "Fleeting Gestures and Changing Styles of Greeting: Researching Daily Life in British Towns in the Long Eighteenth Century." Also important to realize is the rules of etiquette would continue to change through the 19th century and on into the Victorian era, at which time a whole new set of rules developed. For more information on the greeting expectations of the Victorian era to come in the late 19th century, check out Mimi Matthews' post on "The Etiquette of the Victorian Handshake."

 

The etiquette expectations were set by social circles more than anything official or standardized. People within the same social circle would have known the expectations, but when crossing into unfamiliar territory, such as when travelling, it was important to “read the room” and mimic from observation. Generally speaking, the two groups most likely to hold to tradition and formality were those of the older generations and the aristocracy, but even amongst these two groups, the level or formality was inconsistent, some being more relaxed and other sticklers. Should someone not within these two groups be meeting someone within these two groups, best err on the side of caution and demonstrate the utmost respect.


In terms of novels, seeing people's preferences for greeting type offers a great deal of insight into their character, their values, their traditionalism or modernity, etc. How fun for an author to use the etiquette to advantage to show more about the characters, such as the obsequious character who is constantly bowing and scraping or tugging at the proverbial forelock.

 

Two gentlemen shaking hands
The First Meeting of Washington and Lafayette in Philadelphia, August 3rd 1777, by Currier and Ives

The general rule of thumb is to bow/curtsy when meeting someone for the first time, but after that, the handshake or nod of head is preferred. If following this one rule, chances are the person will not be making a grievous faux pas, but there are exceptions, caveats, and more to consider to truly navigate the complexities of social niceties and the changing landscape of greeting etiquette. Let's aim to break down the general etiquette, and then we'll dig into specifics.



Introductions vs Greetings


To begin our journey, let us briefly define what it meant "to be introduced" to someone, "not having been introduced" yet, and greeting someone one already knows.


To Be Introduced. There are two meanings one must consider:

(a) To be formally introduced to someone for the first time, which must be done by a mutual acquaintance.

(b) To be introduced only for the purposes of dancing at a ball or assembly, which could be done by the master of ceremonies rather than a mutual acquaintance.


The formal introduction counted as the first official introduction--you are now both acquainted! Once this occurs, you may greet each other as friends wherever you may encounter each other. The introduction for the purpose of dancing, however, is not considered a formal introduction, and so even after dancing, you are considered strangers and must still be formally introduced by a mutual acquaintance.


Not Having Been Introduced. No formal introduction by a mutual acquaintance has been made.


If the formal introduction has not been made, you are both strangers and cannot so much as acknowledge each other's existence. If Person A encounters a friend in the park, and Person B is standing with the friend, Person A and Person B cannot acknowledge each other, not so much as a nod, unless/until the formal introduction occurs. For all intents and purposes, neither persons exist even if standing in front of each other, not until the formal introduction.


Greeting. Once two people have been formally introduced, they are now acquainted and can acknowledge each other.


The tone of the greeting changes from formal bowing and curtsying to nods and handshakes. The formalities may be dispensed with now that an acquaintance has been established. The two are also in a place to introduce each other to friends and family, but this ought to be carefully considered, for an introduction is the same as serving as a reference to one's job application, so although the formal introduction has happened, it is best to become well acquainted before daring to introduce each other to friends and family.


The method of greeting will depend on a few factors, but an important one is location, namely if it is a crowded place, in a drawing room, on the street, etc. More on this to come.


Illustration of a man introduction a gentleman and lady for dancing at a ball
Sir William presents Elizabeth Bennet to Mr Darcy as a desirable partner, by C E Brock

Introductions:

  • An introduction is always followed by a bow/curtsy, never a handshake, since the handshake is reserved for acquaintances meeting for the second or more time.

  • A married woman should offer her hand rather than curtsy for all subsequent meetings, but can choose if she wishes to do so during the introduction, as well.

    • The "always" rule for first introductions may be broken if and only if a woman is married.

  • A young, unmarried woman, however, should only offer her hand on subsequent meetings if she knows the person well as a friend, but never for the first introduction.


Handshakes:

  • The superior is the one to offer or withhold the handshake, setting the tone for the greeting. The inferior never puts his hand forward first.

  • A woman who offers her hand must offer the whole hand, not two or so fingers.

  • A gentleman who accepts the hand should never clasp it in both or actually shake it.

  • Only the right hand should be offered.

    • Unless on the Continent, then it’s the left hand.

  • Gentlemen should remove their glove before shaking the hand in familiar settings but should keep it in formal settings, such as a ballroom.

  • The mistress of a household should offer her hand to all guests.

  • A gentleman should never kiss a woman's hand unless:

    • it’s an action of respect, specifically to an elderly woman;

    • it's to the young woman he is openly declaring to court.

    • If the gentleman kisses the hand on one of these allowable occasions, his lips should never touch glove or flesh, rather he is merely bowing low over the hand, any perceived kiss being the air above the knuckles only, if at all.



Superior vs Inferior


Similar to Intros and Greetings, it is important to offer a brief definition of who would be seen as "superior" and "inferior" since the bow and curtsy is a sign of respect to one's superior.


There are different levels of superiority, which boils down to who is superior to whom in a given situation. The superior person is the one to define the etiquette protocol, although the default action should always be to bow/curtsy to one's superior unless guided to do otherwise by that superior.


Aristocracy. Aristocrats are always superior to commoners (and yes, "commoner" includes gentry). Aristocrats are not superior to each other. Despite what you might think of there being a "hierarchy," there is not. A duke is a social equal to a baron, for example. As discussed in the post on Nobility, the only "hierarchy" as such is to do with longevity of family name, reputation, and holdings. Socially, they are equal. Generally speaking, aside from Royalty, aristocrats bow/curtsy to no one, but all bow/curtsy to them. Depending on the individual person, a titled gentleman may, for instance, bow to a woman to show respect, although he does not have to.


Elderly. The elderly (define that how you wish) should be considered superior, regardless of class or circumstance, as they have earned respect through wisdom and age. This is not a rule rather a matter of respect to consider an "older" person superior.


Women. While a commoner, and especially a young, unmarried woman, is inferior to both aristocrats and the elderly, a woman is considered "superior" to a gentleman in social greetings, and thus it is the woman in an introduction and subsequent greeting who receives the respect from the gentleman and who dictates the preferred greeting etiquette. Out of respect, a gentleman should always bow to a woman upon first introduction, and from there, allow the woman to determine how they will greet in the future, be it a shake of hand or nod or otherwise.


We'll dive into more of these as we innumerate the rules.




When to Bow (in general)

 

  • A gentleman should always bow to a lady, regardless of age or rank

    • This is the default greeting of respect.

  • A gentleman should bow to a lady of his acquaintance only if and only after the lady curtsies to him, as the lady decides the manner in which they will greet, be it a nod, a handshake, or more formal curtsy/bow

    • This is the clarification to the default of always bowing--bow after the lady curtsies, not before, so as to allow the lady to decide the manner of greeting.

  • A servant should bow to their employer if (and only if) the employer has made it clear that is what is expected.

    • In a strict and formal household, the servants may bob and bow every time the employer and family pass by.

    • In most households, the servants would at most bow their heads to show deference, not bob or bow.

 

When to Curtsy (in general)


  • A young lady should curtsy to an elderly lady as a showing of respect.

  • A young lady of lower rank should curtsy to a lady of higher rank.

  • A young lady should curtsy to a gentleman she is meeting for the first time.

  • A servant should curtsy to their employer if and only if the employer has made it clear that is what is expected.


While there are intricacies based on social rank, gender, and age, the general rules are based on introduction vs greeting. First introductions necessitate formality, and thus bowing and curtsying is the norm, but subsequent greetings are informal and do not require bowing and curtsying. As already seen, and as we'll look into more in these next few points, there are always exceptions and preferences, but this is a great rule to follow for when to and when not to bow/curtsy. First intro? Bow/curtsy. Second greeting? A handshake or nod will do. An important caveat to the "first introduction" rule is based on social equality. Social equals do not bow/curtsy to each other unless it is a gentlewoman and gentleman being first introduced.

 

The second rule is who has command of the level of formality. The woman present always commands the level of formality when meeting or greeting a gentleman, but when two women are meeting/greeting, the order of command is age, and then social rank. The elder of the two will determine the formality of greeting, as age should be respected, regardless of social rank (although there will always be aristocrats who behave otherwise). From there, the superior social rank determines the formality of greeting over the inferior. This second rule is fairly easy to follow--plan to show respect via a curtsy, but allow the other person to lead the way by seeing if they acknowledge with a nod, a handshake, or await the subservient curtsy.



When Not to Bow/Curtsy


  • Two gentlemen of equal social rank should nod or doff their hats, never bow to each other. Only inferior gentlemen bow to their superiors in social rank, and even then, it is only in the first introduction, never in subsequent greetings.

    • Two gentlemen of gentry? No bowing.

    • A gentleman of gentry and an aristocrat? The gentry gentleman should bow.

    • Two aristocrats? No bowing.

  • Acquaintances (of any gender or age or rank) who have already been introduced need only incline their heads or shake hands.

  • A lady should not curtsy to or acknowledge someone she has not been formally introduced to. It is only during the formal introduction that the curtsy is permitted.

  • A gentleman should not bow to a lady he has not been formally introduced to. It is only during and after the formal introduction that the bow is permitted.

    • Important to note is when a "formal introduction" has occurred. If at a ball, and if introduced to a gentleman for the purposes of dancing, this is not a formal introduction. Thus, after said ball, when the two meet again, they must be formally introduced, and then this would be the bowing/curtsying moment. To our modern sensibilities, this seems as though they're being introduced twice, which they are, in essence, but the introduction to dance does not technically count as an "introduction". And so the bowing/curtsying will happen twice, but not after this second/formal introduction since they will now be considered acquainted.

  • If a lady offers her hand to a gentleman, the gentleman should take it rather than bowing.

  • Equals of social rank need not bow or curtsy, even when being first introduced, although a respectful slight bob and nod would not be seen as obsequious.

  • The lady of superior rank should never curtsy to an equal or inferior, only nod in acknowledgement.

  • It is discouraged to bow/curtsy in crowded places, regardless of circumstances, such as when walking, driving, riding, or promenading in Hyde Park or along the street.


Situational Points of Interest


  • Bowing and curtsying remained proper etiquette in the rural countryside far longer; whereas it became “old fashioned” in London by the turn of the century.

  • If a gentleman is wearing a hat, it should be completely removed, not merely raised.

    • Baring one’s head is a form of prostration and submission to a superior, ie showing of respect.

  • The offering of hands for a handshake is between social equals and acquainted people, especially friends, while a kiss on the cheek is not uncommon between family members or longstanding friends. Between strangers on first meeting, the shaking of hands is not yet acceptable, and certainly not a kiss on the cheek.

  • A gentleman must wait for a lady to establish the means of greeting. The lady always takes the initiative. Once a lady curtsies, then the gentleman can bow in response. Or if a lady offers a hand to him instead, then he must take it—not to would be a snub. The gentleman should never act first, be it the first introduction or the fiftieth greeting. It is the lady to act first and determine the tone of the greeting.

    • On the Continent, this is reversed, as the gentleman is required to bow to the lady first instead of waiting for the lady’s acknowledgement.

    • Putting this more into perspective, by rules of introduction, a gentleman is always introduced to a woman, never the reverse, thus the woman determines if the introduction will continue and how the introduction/greeting will continue.

      • Ex:

        • Correct: Person A approaches Mrs. Whitehall with Gentleman B in tow. "Mrs. Whitehall. May I introduce to you Gentleman B?" Cue Mrs. Whitehall's decision of allowing the introduction by curtsying or extending a hand (or if she's a Lady Whitehall, then a nod of the head).

        • Incorrect: Person A approaches Gentleman B with Mrs. Whitehall in tow. "May I introduce Mrs. Whitehall?"

      • A great resource on introduction etiquette is Rachel Knowles' "Regency Introductions."



Everyday Salutations:


  • Remove hat when calling on an acquaintance.

  • Bow when being introduced to a stranger.

  • Rise when someone enters the drawing room.

  • Rise when a woman stands.

  • Gentlemen must wait to be offered a seat by a woman before sitting.

  • Wave a hand to a friend as he walks or drives past in the street or park.

 


Cheat Sheet:


Included here is a Yes/No flowchart that might help determine what is appropriate. While the protocol is a little more complicated than this with exceptions to the rules and considerations for social circle preferences, this offers the general rules of the game to determine if one should bow, curtsy, shake hands, doff hat, nod, etc. Rest assured our heroes and heroines were not working through flowchart variables in their heads while they walked through life. Greetings were about respect, bottom line, and the protocol for showing respect was engrained in the culture and behavior. It would have been almost second nature to respond a certain way, not too different from when we bump into a friend, employer, or colleague while out and about--our greetings differ with each, but those greetings are natural and responsive, not overthought.




Closing Thoughts


The rules are curious, of course, because there are absolutes of always and never but then followed by exceptions and situational caveats, thus negating the absolute. Social etiquette being what it is, the group itself determines what is acceptable and what is not. It would be important to know the basic rules so as not to embarrass oneself, but it was more important to observe the subtleties and preferences of the attending social scene.

 

When it comes to novels, there is a good bit of flexibility since not only was the etiquette in flux, but the preferences differed from group to group. Attend Lady X's ball and be expected to follow the strictest of rules, but attend Lady M's ball and find an informal setting. What a writer chooses tells us more about the characters and the scenario in which they find themselves than it does about the era itself. If there's a lot of bowing and scraping happening, that speaks volumes. Generally speaking, by the time we reach the Regency, aside from the formal introductions, we should not see a great deal of bowing and curtsying, but again, including it can tell us a great deal about the characters and social expectations of the setting in which they find themselves. The further back we move towards the turn of the century and into the 18th century, the more we are likely to see the bowing and curtsying formalities. Are we sad or relieved to see this formality mostly a thing of the past?



 




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