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Three Social Codes that Outlived Their Welcome

Updated: Feb 19, 2021

Many social codes, especially those that distinguished gender and social class, have faded from our lives, or evolved into something new.

In observance of Valentine’s Day and in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, let’s remind ourselves of some social codes that had outlived their time. While I recently wrote about social codes that have evolved and have withstood the test of time, there are many that have faded completely. Good riddance to those!

Who can ask someone out?

When it comes to social codes, Valentine’s Day and invitations; who can ask whom?—who can extend an invitation?— the answer is; socially, anyone can ask anyone else out.

Long gone are the traditional days when a woman sat by a phone, waiting for a man to call to ask for a date. As I said, good riddance! In a social situation, you don’t wait for an invitation. If you want to go out with someone, take it upon yourself to ask.

As with any social code, there can be exceptions or superseding codes. Be mindful of not breaking codes regarding religious or philosophical beliefs, or business and protocol mandates—use your common sense and sensibilities. However, if you prefer to follow traditional ways, then by all means, do so. We have a choice here; be true to you.

Certain dress codes

Many dress codes that were also once gender based have disappeared. There was a time when women were expected to wear dresses, hats and gloves when out in public. Hopefully you have taken yourself to see Little Women, a beautiful and classic example!

Up until about 1960, “Glove Etiquette” ruled as to when and how a lady would wear gloves, the length of the gloves, and even how to take them off. For example, when entering a restaurant, a lady was to remove her coat, but keep on her hat and gloves, until she was seated. Then, she would take off her gloves—pulling finger by finger, and place the gloves neatly under her napkin, to eat.

Originally, gloves were worn for sanitary reasons; to be insulated from dirt and grime while out in public. In the early part of the 20th Century, gloves could differentiate between social classes.

At that time, working women labored with their hands and thus were rough and weathered, as opposed to an upper class lady’s glove-protected hands, which were soft and smooth. This social code faded because gloves were inconvenient and unnecessary due to better hygiene, though certainly as well because of the fall of such overt class snobbery.

Nowadays, it’s far more likely to see a woman in winter gloves, medical gloves and baseball gloves. Here’s a toast to that!

Dining etiquette

When was the last time you asked friends over for dinner and you worried about the number of utensils that can be placed at one time at each place setting? (The answer is 12—just in case you’re planning something really fancy). Or, have you ever spent hours starching tablecloths in preparation for a dinner party?

Lucky for us, many social codes regarding dining etiquette have faded from our everyday lives.

The expected social code of setting a very formal table for a friendly dinner at your home has waned— it’s rare to have the time to do this. The most important element is to enjoy time with friends and family, either formally or with a pizza—you can have the same amount of fun with either.

Social codes today do not expect us to set formal tables, but give us the option to do so if we choose. Even though these codes have not withstood the test of time, it is always appropriate to have fun and bring them back for an evening, if you desire!

Full disclosure, I personally love preparing a fancy, formal gathering. Once, to reminisce about a trip to the Galapagos Islands with my trip-mates, I spent two weeks making replicas of the individual islands from paper maché for the centerpiece. I painted toy iguanas, I carved animals out of watermelons, as we had on our ship, and made confetti from pictures of the trip to scatter down the table.

No social code demanded that I do this, I simply wanted to. My guests appreciated my efforts, and most of all, it made me happy.

As another example, I hosted an Afternoon Tea a few years back to honor a friend who had just published her first book. This wasn’t meant to be the least bit stiff or stuffy. We were just proud of our friend’s accomplishment and wanted to have a little fun in a unique way. Some guests wore white gloves, and told us they had to search antique shops to find them!

We weren’t expected to wear gloves, that code had faded. The social codes we cracked told us to celebrate our friend’s accomplishment with joy—gloves optional. But my friends enjoyed them and liked the idea of dressing up! So why not?

Many social codes, especially those that have distinguished gender and social class, have faded from our lives, or evolved into something new. Today, we are lucky to have choices within social codes that allow us to be our best selves—as long as we remain responsible, respectful and grateful.


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