Introductions and Greetings

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"Do you consider the forms of introduction, and the stress that is laid on them, as nonsense? I cannot quite agree with you there. What say you, Mary?"
[Chapter 2, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen]

When Jane Austen was writing her novels around the turn of the 19th century, the rules and etiquette surrounding introductions was so well known by her contemporary audience that she never needed to explain them. It's only today, when formal introductions are rarely required, that some of her character's actions seem a bit stuffy.

Introductions were more involved than just finding out someone's name and giving them yours in return. Once someone accepted an introduction to you they were officially recognising you and accepting you as an acquaintance. It gave you the right to speak to them again when you next met. This is the reason why people were always given the option to refuse an unwelcome introduction.

"When is your next ball to be, Lizzy?''
"To-morrow fortnight.''
"Aye, so it is,'' cried her mother, "and Mrs. Long does not come back till the day before; so it will be impossible for her to introduce him, for she will not know him herself.''
"Then, my dear, you may have the advantage of your friend, and introduce Mr. Bingley to her.''
"Impossible, Mr. Bennet, impossible, when I am not acquainted with him myself; how can you be so teazing?''

[Chapter 2, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen]

Introductions were made by a third person (the introducer) who knew the person being introduced and the person they were being introduced to. So, if you wanted to be introduced to a particular person, you first had to know someone who had already been introduced to them.

The etiquette of introductions

"Give me leave, Lady Delacour, to introduce to you," said his lordship, "a young gentleman, who has a great, and, I am sure, a most disinterested desire to cultivate your ladyship's further acquaintance."
[Chapter 24, Belinda, by Maria Edgeworth]

The usual etiquette was to only introduce people if the introducer already knew, or believed, that the introduction would be acceptable to both parties. Even when the person making the introductions was certain that both sides would welcome the introduction, it was still considered polite to ask permission.

The first rule of introductions was simple. When the two adults being introduced were male and female, the gentleman was always introduced to the lady, and never the other way around. Even if the gentleman was a duke and the lady a poor curate's daughter, it was always accepted that the lady was superior, and therefore the gentleman should be honoured by the introduction.

"...she heard Lord Osborne, who was lounging on a vacant table near her, call Tom Musgrave towards him and say, "Why do not you dance with that beautiful Emma Watson? I want you to dance with her, and I will come and stand by you."
"I was determining on it this very moment, my lord; I'll be introduced and dance with her directly."
"Aye, do; and if you find she does not want much talking to, you may introduce me by and by."

[From The Watsons, an unfinished novel by Jane Austen]

Where two men meet for the first time, or two women are introduced to each other, the person of lower status was introduced to the person of higher status. For example, a baronet like Sir Walter Elliot, would be introduced to an earl, but a gentleman, like Mr. Bennet, would be introduced to Sir Walter.

However, in certain circumstances, such as when trying to make a good impression, the person of higher status could always choose to request an introduction, particularly if the person of lower status is a generation older. So, for example, if the young duke meets the elderly father of a particular young lady he's interested in, he might ask to be introduced as a mark of respect, even though, socially, the father is his inferior.

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