Norbert Elias, 'On Blowing One's Nose'

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This may have come up in this forum before (if so, apologies), but I wondered if anyone knows sociologist Norbert Elias's book The Civilizing Process (originally published in German in 1939, available in English since 1994)? This has a chapter entitled 'On Blowing One's Nose'. Elias cites nose-blowing etiquette from various different periods: in the thirteenth century, Bonvesin de la Riva, in De la zinquatanta cortexie da tavola  told gentlemen 'When you blow your nose or cough, turn round so that nothing falls on the table'. A German text from the fifteenth-century, Ein spruch der ze tische kert, said 'It is unseemly to blow your nose into the tablecloth'; another in French, S'ensuivent les contenances de la table, said 'Do not blow your nose with the same hand that you use to hold the meat'. Other texts describe blowing the nose into the fingers, coat, hat or clothing (seen as 'rustic' activities), arm or elbow (for tradesmen), and so on.

Here is part of Elias's conclusion, relating nose-blowing practices to class:

'3 . An indication of the mechanisms of suppression may already be contained in the two verses quoted from Bonvicino da Riva (Example A). The difference
between what was expected of knights and lords , on the one hand , and of the donizelli, pages, or servants, on the other, calls to mind a much documented social servants distasteful; they compelled them, the social inferiors in their immediate surroundings, to control and restrain these functions in a way chat they did not at first impose on themselves. The verse addressed to the masters says simply: If you blow your nose, turn round so that nothing falls on the table. There is no mention of using a cloth. Should we believe that the use of cloths for cleaning the nose was already taken so much for granted in this society that it was no longer thought necessary to mention it in a book on manners? That is highly improbable. The servants, on the other hand, were expressly instructed to use not their fingers bur their foot bandages if they had to blow their noses. To be sure, this interpretation of the two verses cannot be considered absolutely certain. But the fact can be frequently demonstrated that functions were found distasteful and disrespectful in inferiors which superiors were nor ashamed of in themselves. This fact takes on special significance when, with the emergence of absolutism, that is at the absolute courts, the aristocracy as a whole had become a hierarchically graded and simultaneously a serving and socially dependent stratum. This at first sight highly paradoxical phenomenon of an upper class chat was socially extremely dependent will be discussed later in another context. Here we can only point out that this social dependence and its structure had decisive importance for the structure and parrern of affect restrictions. The examples
contain numerous indications of how these restrictions were intensified with the growing dependence of the upper class. Ir is no accident that the first "peak of
refinement" or "delicacy" in the manner of blowing the nose - and not only here--came in the phase when the dependence and subservience of the aristocratic upper class was at its height, the period of Louis XIV (Examples H and I).

The dependency of the upper class also explains the dual aspect which behaviour-patterns and instruments of civilization had at least in their formative phase: they expressed a certain measure of compulsion and renunciation, but they always also -serve as a weapon against social inferiors, a means of distinction. Handkerchief, fork, plates and all related implements were at first luxury articles with a particular social prestige value (Example G).

The social dependence in which the succeeding upper class, the bourgeoisie, lives, is of a different kind, certainly, from that of the court aristocracy, but tends to be rather greater and more compelling.'


I would be really interested to know what some people observe as normative behaviour today in terms of nose-blowing amongst different classes, genders, between gay and straight people, amongst different ethnic groups, and so on.


There is also a chapter in Elias called 'On Spitting', a subject that at some point it would be interesting to discuss in another thread?

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This was a very interesting read! Thanks for sharing :) 

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9 minutes ago, CharliesGirl said:

This was a very interesting read! Thanks for sharing :) 

Any thoughts on current blowing etiquette? I would observe, for starters, that there continues to be a general greater tendency towards handkerchiefs amongst men than women, though this has narrowed since when I was younger. And that loud, honking blowing is viewed as less acceptable for women, which is one reason why it is notable when one does see it. And lower middle-class people, in my experience, are more self-conscious about blowing in public than various others.

And working-class women are more likely to openly brandish tissues in their hands. And so on. What have you found? I'm interested what you think other women who are your peers are likely to think of another woman who does a really explosive, messy blow in front of them?


(sorry the formatting went a bit haywire - if I was able to edit posts, I would change that)

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