7 Tips for Good Behavior–from the 16th Century.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 8 tips for how to behave yourself, from sixteenth-century scholar Erasmus.

One thing is true about happiness: there are very few new truths out there. The greatest minds in history have turned their attention to the subject, so while it’s often challenging to put that wisdom into actual practice, it’s pretty clear what kinds of actions are likely to yield a happier life.

Likewise, “tips lists” have been around for a long time. I get a big kick out of uncovering tips lists from the past:  Sydney Smith’s tips for cheering yourself up from 1820, Francis Bacon’s tips for how to be happy from 1625, Lord Chesterfield’s tips for pleasing in society from 1774.

In De Civilitate Morum Puerilium Libellus: A Handbook on Good Manners for Children, Erasmus gave seven tips about how to behave yourself around other people. He wrote this list around 1500 A.D., and his advice has a long shelf life.

According to Erasmus, you should not…
1. gossip
2. tell unkind stories
3. boast
4. indulge in self-display
5. seek to defeat others in argument
6. interrupt people when they tell a story
7. be too inquisitive

What would you add to your own list? For myself, I need to add:

8. don’t “top” (meaning, don’t say things like, “Wow, you think that was bad, wait until you hear what happened to me”)

9. don’t keep bringing the conversation around to your favorite topics if other people don’t seem as obsessively interested in them as you are.

How about you?

43 thoughts on “7 Tips for Good Behavior–from the 16th Century.”

  1. Gretchen, this is a great post! It’s so true – there is nothing new under the sun. However, the link for Lord Chesterfield’s tips actually takes us to tips for getting your sweetheart to do chores without nagging. 

  2. Avoid “conversation stoppers.” For example, if someone says they liked a movie, ask “why” instead of saying, “I hated it.”

    1. I often slip up and say, “I didn’t like it…” but once I catch myself, I say, “…but what did you like about it? Maybe I need to see it again with fresh eyes.”

  3. I might add- Don’t seek to exclude others in the conversation. Occasionally, I find myself part of a group conversation where only a few people in the group know an inside reference to an event or joke. It’s uncomfortable!

    1. Absolutely. And in the same vein, when someone joins an ongoing conversation, do something explicitly to make them feel welcome, like say, “We were just talking about…” or being sure to make eye contact with them, so they feel that they’ve been acknowledged.

  4. I’d like to add a couple things that I see people doing, and try to make sure I never do these, as they can be quite hurtful.  Definately make someone new to the conversation feel welcome, but not to the point of shutting down the person currently speaking. I’ve been on the receiving end of that, and it feels awful, as if the person is only listening to you because there’s nothing better to do, or you are simply boring them. The other is hurrying someone up. You might say,”get to the point” to your husband/wife/friend in a private conversation, but in publicit’s only belittling and mean spirited.

  5. Gretchen – Loved your talk at the PWBC at Moscone in San Francisco yesterday!  I will remember to jump up and down for quick energy.  Hope to see you at BlogHer, if you are going to New York this summer.

  6. I would add; don’t be too well-behaved. If you follow all of these tips in the same conversation, I think you might come over a bit fake!

  7. I’m with you on #8! I’d add: Don’t forget to listen to other people because you’re busy coming up with the next thing you’ll say!

  8. I cannot begin to tell you how much I empathize with #8. Great one! It reminds me of kindergarten where you often hear one kid telling another “I have a Ferrari” and the other one would immediately retaliate “Oh but I have a Ferrari and a Lamborghini”. I guess, that attitude does not change much when people move into adulthood. 

  9. This is such an intelligent and creative article! I’d have to say #1 is the most important “truth” or rule to me.  Gossiping  can be used as a way to devalue others while elevating oneself. Insecurity and feelings of low self-esteem are usually what fuels this type of behavior and it is never a becoming trait.

    Dr. Paula Durlofsky

  10. Your added ones are spot on. If there’s one thing that sucks when your ease the burden in your heart is to have the other person “top” your burden.
    I think it’s a common myth that if you found out that someone is worse off than you, you’ll feel better.

    1. This is an excellent point. A friend who had cancer was just saying something along these lines to me. She said that when people made that kind of remark to her, it made her feel as though she was being self-indulgent and whiny to feel bad, because some people were worse off. The opposite of comforting.

      But sometimes it is comforting to remember it. Maybe that’s the kind of thing we can say to OURSELVES.

  11. Please don’t check your phone during your conversation with me. (Apologizing before saying, “I’m expecting a call from my mother’s doctor saying that the lump was benign,” is permissible.)

  12. Great List — two more I’d add:

    1.  Never put anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t be willing to have published in the newspaper.  Tone matters.
    2.  Never say anything about someone behind their back that you wouldn’t be willing to say to their face.

  13. When does it become “topping” though? Sometimes when someone else has shared something that happened to the and it was worse/better/whatever it’s made me feel not quite so “alone” in the matter.

    1. Good point. I agree with you that when people genuinely share a story with us it can provide us with emotional support. I believe that when someone tries to “top” us in an attempt to elelevate him or herself we feel it in our gut. Genuine motions are hard to fake!

      Dr. Paula Durlofsky

  14. I think #5 is terrible and #7 is poorly worded.
    If you are able to cause someone re-evaluate what they would otherwise accept unquestioningly, you should do so. It’s strange that people have such a problem with being proven wrong, it’s a good thing really, and provided the person doing it isn’t rude about it it shouldn’t anyone cause the least bit of distress.
    And there’s nothing wrong with being inquisitive, so long as you’re not being intrusive.

    1. I think that the key word in #5 is “defeat.” It’s one thing to point out an error of fact or a question a viewpoint. It’s something else to crow because you caught someone out, or beat them down in a verbal fight. The corollary would be, if someone points out that you are wrong, don’t react with defensiveness. Being corrected gently is not bad when taken as information, not judgement.

  15. Though it might clash with #s 5 & 7, I think we need to find a way to inject *more* political discourse into the conversation. Though it’s said that religion and politics are two things you don’t discuss in “polite’ company, they are so critical to our society, there has got to be a way to broach these topics respectfully (with the agreeing to disagree caveat).

    As an atheist, when discussing my “god-view,” I explain that I consider it a sign of respect to speak openly and honestly about my views on any topic.

    Remember, it was the genteel South that held manners in the highest esteem while at the same time mired in the travesty of slavery.

  16. Hi Gretchen. Do you have a “Good Behavior List” for “Cell Phone Etiquette” available to post? I cant even communicate with some of our patients without being told, “Just a minute” while they continue their personal or business phone calls. Or how about being forced into over hearing someones arguments? Even worse–being stuck in an elevator and having to listen to someone on the phone. It feels as though, they seem to think that no one else exists around them. The common space we are sharing with others isn’t being “fairly” shared. Im sure that even when we think we are being well mannered, we may not be. Just by reading over a list we could learn something we all need some improvement on.   

  17. I recently heard the expression “Black dogging”, as in, “my black dog is blacker than yours!”. I love this expression, it reminds me to not “top” others’ stories. I didn’t really realise I did it, but I do, and it is an annoying habit. 

    1. I love this, because Winston Churchill (I wrote a biography about him) was well known for talking about his “black dog.” Great phrase.

  18. I constantly tell my children, “look at me”, even in mid-sentence sometimes. Somebody made it clear to me that when someone is talking to you or to a group you are in, or a classroom, etc. , it is very rude and insulting if you do not give them your attention. To me, this means to watch them while they speak (this can sometimes even be in your peripheral vision with a few short glances toward them as you take notes), and I personally, even turn my body toward them as they move from one side of the room to the next while a teacher lectures in the front of the classroom. I really can learn a lot more from people in the world this way,… I tend to actually connect more with their position, as well. I can better understand someone’s point of view when I watch them as they are explaining it. Its more then just listening to someone with your ears.

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