This article considers the intersection between polite manners and company in eighteenth-century England. Through the laughter of gentlemen, it makes a case for a concept of occasional politeness, which is intended to emphasize that polite comportment was only necessary on certain occasions. In particular, it was the level of familiarity shared by a company that determined what was considered appropriate. There was unease with laughter in polite sociability, yet contemporaries understood that polite prudence could be waived when men met together in friendly homosocial encounters. In these circumstances, there existed a tacit acceptance of looser manners that might be called ‘intimate bawdiness’, which had its origins in a renaissance humanist train of thought that valorized wit as the centrepiece of male sociability. This argument tempers the importance of politeness by stressing the social contexts for which it was – and was not – a guiding principle. Ultimately, it suggests that the category of company might be one way of rethinking eighteenth-century sociability in a more pluralistic fashion, which allows for contradictory practices to co-exist. As such, it moves towards breaking down the binary oppositions of polite and impolite, elite and popular, and theory and practice that have been imposed on the period.
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