The paying and returning of calls, and doing so correctly, is one of the key points of etiquette of our present times. In metaphorical terms, it is the oil which keeps the social wheel turning. Paying and returning calls is the way one makes and furthers acquaintances, or alternatively, ends them.
There are a series of rules and codes of behaviour which need to be followed in the calling process, in order to achieve the highest levels of success. And, as success can never be truly achieved without diligent application and study, we have compiled here the necessary skills for you to endeavour to learn and replicate yourself.
When you can pay a call
Generally, calls are paid in the morning. However, by morning, any time between ten or eleven o’clock in the morning to around three o’clock in the afternoon is meant. If you call any earlier, there is the chance that your acquaintance will still be engaged in morning tasks, such as taking breakfast and instructing the housekeeper. If you arrive after three o’clock, it does rather look as though you are trying to scrounge an invitation to dinner.
Additionally, if you have received a call, you need to return it within the next few days. Receiving a call on a Monday, and waiting until the following week to return it, smacks of ill-attention or poor manners. Doing this indicates a desire to bring an acquaintance or a friendship to an end. Never returning a call would effectively end it.
These are the general principles one should follow for when you can pay a call. However, there are some further, finer rules of etiquette which should be considered. For example, a lady in London may call on her social equals or inferiors, but when embarking upon an acquaintance with a lady who is her social superior, she must wait for them to call upon her. However a gentleman, newly arrived in the countryside, can call upon his social superiors first.
Who you can call upon (and for how long)
To begin, there are some people upon whom one really must call. It is, for instance, important to call upon a newly married bride to offer congratulations and (if necessary) to welcome her to the area. It is also important to call upon those in what we might politely call ‘reduced circumstances’. The less fortunate are all the more deserving of our attention and our kindness. To neglect those who are suffering is the height of poor manners and ill conduct.
There are also those upon whom one should call. This applies to returning calls, for instance. Also, a gentleman should call upon his principle dancing partner the day after a ball. One should also call more generally upon friends and relations in order to continue the social dialogue and keep in touch. It is too easy to let friendships drift and fade away.
Nevertheless, it is also important to know when not to make a call. Paramount among these directions is the warning that a lady must never call upon a gentleman. It is also improper to call upon those you don’t actually know, or your social superiors unless they have visited you first (as discussed above).
In addition, for a call to be polite, it should last at least fifteen minutes. Leaving earlier than this suggests that you are only visiting to be polite, but actually have no real desire to be there. The standard duration should therefore be between fifteen minutes and half an hour. It is important not to outstay one’s welcome. However, it is perfectly acceptable to stay longer (and have a good natter) with close friends.
What you can (and should) do during a call
Conversation is the main point of a call, and the introductory conversation should always include enquiries after the health of the family. If the acquaintance is only of short duration, it is best practice to focus on discussing the surrounding area and the weather. Politics and religion are probably best avoided at this stage. If you are calling upon long-standing friends, feel free to discuss whatever (and whomever) you choose.
Of course, if it is a visit to a new acquaintance, you should mainly stick to the activity of talking. If refreshments are offered, it is polite to take them. For later visits, it is permissible to take some needlework with you and gentlemen can also peruse a newspaper if one happens to be on hand.
In short, reputation is a social currency, and it does not grow without effort. However a truly successful lady or gentleman in Regency Society must understand that it is important at all times to consider the feelings of those around you. Negligence during and in the making of calls can leave others feeling slighted and injured. This social custom is not just a matter of politeness or propriety, it is also about kindness and decency.
Kloester, Jennifer, Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, (London: William Heinemann, 2005).
Ross, Josephine, Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades and Horrible Blunders, (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).
Sullivan, Margaret C, The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills From Regency England, (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2007).