Much to my surprise yesterday I heard myself say to someone whom I have only just met that I recognized her good breeding – an abrupt compliment to a young woman made all the more astonishing by the fact that it subsequently arose from a brief enquiry into her ancestry that I was perfectly correct in my initial summation! It was a two-fold reward: one, that people of good breeding do in fact exist; and, two, that the breeding itself was so palpable – as pleasant as the aroma from a fresh rose, as gentle as the offered hand of a charming new acquaintance, as stimulating as a conversation with a learned person.  I think that pretty well covers all the relevant odoriferous, tactile and intellectual sensibilities. No doubt there are far more acute methods of determining someone’s breeding but I consider the talent akin to identifying the magnificence of a Steinway grand piano upon completion of the first movement; viz., as plain as daylight.

What is more remarkable is the two-fold subplot; namely, one, the discovery was to my everlasting discredit not originally anticipated; and, two, it should have been anticipated given the strength of association that prevailed with the lady’s gentleman whom (and whose family) I have known for years. In a nutshell, the upshot of the short telephone conversation with the lady was that both she and her gentleman (partner) came from distinguished local families; that she and many of her immediate relatives and relations are highly educated in important Canadian universities; and, that she had the added advantage of literary advancement and exposure.  In all, as I have said, her breeding was perfectly discernible in a moment’s conversation. I suspect the country gentleman knows for example how to assess fine horse flesh in a gander. The immediacy had a similar persuasion for me.

An analysis of what constitutes good breeding – perhaps I should avoid the pleonasm by saying breeding only – is an engagement fraught with peril as it so forcefully engenders within each of us things and behaviour that count, and things and behaviour that don’t.  Clearly such animation is a precursor to the further confusion surrounding – as the term breeding suggests – singularity, a qualification somehow inherent in certain people of notable status and legacy behaving in a stock and predictable manner. Yet as critical as are good table manners and chit-chat at the opera, breeding is like beauty quite indefinable, or perhaps I should say, recognizable but by standards which are so refined and distilled as to be beyond question. The other matter to recall is the variance between breeding and trained social conduct; the former is the consequence of synthesis, the latter of mechanism.

A look at standard definition affords further appreciation of the quality that is breeding:

1 aristocratic breeding: upbringing, rearing; birth, parentage, family, pedigree, blood, stock, lineage; and,

2 people of rank and breeding: (good) manners, gentility, refinement, cultivation, culture, polish, civility, urbanity; politeness, courtesy, graciousness; informal class; humorous couth.

ANTONYMS bad manners, vulgarity

While I have complimented myself for having discerned the breeding of the young lady on the telephone this morning – and having mingled with her in person later that afternoon – I am satisfied that I am perfectly correct in my summary, I am bound to account as well that I have known others who were not as readily entitled to the characterization of breeding because of their comparative lack of family and other fortunes but who yet met all other qualification. This then speaks to the profound thread of accomplishment which distinguishes even those who appear to have no immediate entitlement to the favour. I should add too that just because one recognizes breeding doesn’t mean one has any; breeding does not necessarily co-exist.

It is a curiosity of those of conventional breeding that not infrequently they reportedly revel in mixing with those who on their face may resound more of a bawdy nature than one of breeding. Nor is it an accident that such coalitions often are commingled with risqué and naughty behaviour. But don’t dismiss the purely inquisitive theme which similarly insinuates contrasting persons both of whom can merit the distinction of breeding. It is notable for example that at the outset of this discussion there was no mention of appearance; rather everything I mentioned of breeding arose sight unseen.  This isn’t to suggest a lovely profile or a handsome face hasn’t an advantage in society – to pretend otherwise is a deceit – but it most certainly does not sustain the penetrating quality of breeding any more than porcelain skin tones will last forever.

Breeding not unlike so many other impenetrable qualities is not precisely what I would call a learned definition. It is far removed from mere table manners.  The thing is, it’s not so much how you eat or dress or speak. Breeding has no more retail value than a pretty roadside flower – nice but not worth anything. Breeding has certainly never been empowered as a commercial or political necessity.