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Surviving a fancy event with traditional etiquette

Laura Döing eg
November 24, 2016

Adolf Freiherr von Knigge, an 18th-century writer, is still considered Germany's leading authority on etiquette. His rules can help you prepare for your next glamorous event - like the German Press Ball.

Adolph Freiherr Knigge
Image: picture-alliance / dpa

In Germany, Knigge is synonymous with etiquette. There's the Knigge for business, the Knigge for ties, the Knigge for emails, the Knigge for grief and even the white sausage Knigge - just to name a few. There's hardly an area without a good manners guide. 

Adolph Franz Friedrich Freiherr von Knigge, an 18th-century German writer, probably never could have imagined that nearly every etiquette book in Germany would be named after him some day.

The authors of those current guides might not even realize that Knigge never actually wrote about good table manners, but rather a treatise on social skills called "Über den Umgang mit Menschen " (translated as "Practical Philosophy of Social Life").

First edition of Adolph Knigge's 'Über den Umgag mit Menschen,' 1788
The original edition of Knigge's most famous work

Enlightenment instead of table manners

For his famous 1788 work, Knigge (1752-1796) analyzed people's social behavior a year before the French Revolution took place. The humanist had previously dealt with the works of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, had translated French texts by Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and wrote different essays on history, politics and society.

With his famous social study, Knigge aimed to change and enlighten society. Rules of etiquette were introduced in his book later in the 18th century. Copyright was not a legally binding concept at the time, so different authors added chapters to Knigge's very popular book after its publication, now simply known as the Knigge in Germany.

In the original book, Knigge covers most aspects of coexistence: relations between parents and children, how to deal with lovers, married couples, neighbors, superiors and subordinates, friends, hosts and guests, scholars and artists and even how to deal with yourself.

Knigge in the digital age

His advice still appears relevant, if taken with a pinch of humor and applied to today's context. For example, his recommendation to concentrate on a smaller number of friends instead of embracing everyone shouldn't be forgotten in this age of thousands of Facebook "friends."

White sausage plate
There's even a Knigge for white sausageImage: picture-alliance/dpa

New editions of Knigge's social study now deliberately leave out passages that are completely outdated, such as sections warning against fraudulent postal stagecoaches or horse merchants.

The chapter "On dealing with women's rooms" has also been left out of most new editions, thankfully. If Knigge promoted the spirit of Enlightenment, feminism clearly wasn't part of it.

Knigge's name is not only used for many new etiquette guides, but for seminars on good manners as well. The German Knigge Society and the German Knigge Council still promote his ideas, transferring them to modern contexts.

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