Victorian gentlemen tipped or doffed their hats to show respect, and ladies brandished fans to display refinement. It was the fashion to have calling cards, which were like business cards but fancier (some even had fringe). When you dropped by someone's house, you left your card on a tray by the door. To show that you'd come in person rather than sending a servant, you folded the card's top right corner. Folding the top left corner meant congratulations; the bottom left, condolences.

These customs sound charming but also exhausting, and the byzantine trappings seem like entrapments. Who'd want to return to the era of the delicate creature who spent her days in her parlor or under a parasol? Wearing gloves all the time would make it difficult to text or cross-train, and the constant fainting would really cramp one's style.

But not all of the era's many rules focused on appearance and ritual. Etiquette experts advised not turning your back on someone, paying attention to the little things that might make a guest feel more comfortable, and governing yourself to be patient. The code served as a mutual agreement on how to treat people with consideration and respect, avoid offense and put others at ease.

In our age of admiration for those who are loud, proud and bullheaded, niceness can be equated with weakness. The Victorians, however, knew that good manners were a sign of strength. Courtesy often goes hand in hand with self-discipline, requiring us to hold our tongues, take our time, delay our own gratification to meet another person's needs. Though the cane-and-corset set probably took restraint further than we want to go, it might serve us all to revive the notion of social grace as a virtue. The road of self-interest usually ends in isolation; when we greet the world with kindness and expect kindness in return, we know we're not alone.

Most of us don't have time to host afternoon at-homes with a silver tea service, and our friends would probably be too busy to attend anyway. That shouldn't keep us from bringing more civility to our 21st-century lives. We can take more interest in each other's conversation, honor others' opinions, or let someone else be first in line. However troubled our modern times, we can make civility our calling card, reminding those around us, You matter.

Liesl Schillinger is the author of Wordbirds and translator of Alexandre Dumas, Fils's The Lady of the Camellias and other works of fiction.

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