This is a very socially fraught word.
Essentially it comes down to not showing off, not challenging. Exactly what is being shown depends on context. Wealth, power, one's body, one's gaze. Sometimes the meaning of modesty is very sexual. Sometimes it is more casual. Modesty is generally considered a good thing, but not always.
It's a really fascinating thing to play with in fiction.
You can go about approaching modesty from the larger scale, by importing a kind of cultural analog society and letting the modesty register for that society fall roughly where it falls in the real world society. I mentioned Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon for an instance of that. Alternatively, you can build up a society piece by piece, and end up with quite unexpected, but still consistent, rules for modesty. The example I gave of this was glove-wearing in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch books. Morgan mentioned that in Darkover (Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross), it was important to keep the back of the neck covered, and so that influenced hair styles.
Many real world cultures have historically (or contemporarily) required the hair to be covered.
These rules are not always "logical," as when it's totally fine to show the bare bust and shoulders with a low cut dress, but not okay to show the ankles. They really are culturally dependent. I mentioned the example of erotic art in Western and Japanese ukiyo-e traditions. In the former, one tends to see bare bodies with only the naughty bits covered; in the latter, the body tends to be completely covered except for the naughty bits!
I mentioned the painting Olympia by Manet, and mentioned how I had been shown the contrast between that painting and others at the Musée d'Orsay. Olympia was considered scandalous because the woman in the painting was making eye contact with the viewer. A nude goddess with her eyes turned toward the sky was not.
Eye contact is a pretty big deal in modesty. Veils of various sorts can mitigate its effect. We might leap to think of a burqa, but there were also thin veils on women's hats in the US in the 1950's whose purpose was to cover the upper face.
We asked: For whose benefit does modesty exist?
It's a double-edged sword. Covering up can protect women from having to make eye contact, and might give them the freedom to have facial expressions that might otherwise get them in trouble. Covering up might protect a woman from the male gaze. However, there is always the tricky question of what lies underneath: male ownership or personal choice. A woman who has been forced to cover up to keep herself from being looked at by other men (keeping herself under the ownership of one) is very different from one who has chosen to cover up to deflect attention.
In the Victorian era, lowering one's eyes or turning away was considered modest.
In the Middle East and other hot regions of the world, covering up is an extremely practical way to avoid sunburn!
The meaning of any particular act of modesty depends on the individual, but it also depends on society. In the 1930's and 1940's, men did not go shirtless, and it was considered scandalous to show up on a beach without a shirt. Men protested and went out in shirtless groups, and suddenly it became okay. Social rules change over time. Glenda showed us an awesome photo of her father in his swimsuit in 1929.
We then talked about verbal modesty, in particular, how people handle compliments. Sometimes people deny the compliment, saying that whatever they have is not so special. Sometimes they deflect it. Sometimes they will launch into extended sequences of self-denigration. There are also indirect deflection techniques, as when one explains why a particular piece of clothing has a special meaning. One can also respond non-verbally to compliments, with eye-lowering bowing, blushing, etc. There is also the traditional response, "thank you."
Could there be a society without modesty? We guessed probably not, but the parameters of modesty wouldn't need to be something that we humans would easily recognize. It would all depend on how power was expressed in that society.
"Tooting your own horn" is considered immodest, as Glenda noted. We briefly mentioned how tricky it is to know the boundaries between self-promotion and self-aggrandizement.
It's good to be aware that making eye contact has very different cultural meanings. In many societies, direct eye gaze is seen as challenging rather than engaging (including some native American Indian groups and some Asian groups). This difference can cause quite a bit of misunderstanding, in which people are seen as rude, or in the opposite situation, seen as evasive. Have you ever heard anyone say, "Look at me when I'm talking to you?" This can also be problematic with people who are autistic or non-neurotypical.
The particular iconic meanings of eye contact can raise big problems. Staring is bad. Hiding is bad or a sign of untrustworthiness.
Have you ever noticed that you avoid eye contact when speaking, but watch the other person when they are speaking?
If you are hard of hearing, staring might mean you are trying to understand.
Blindness would also affect these rules. Sally Smith left a comment confirming our suspicion that the blind are socialized to face a speaker when they are speaking.
This was a fascinating discussion and we all felt there was more to touch on, perhaps in the future. Thank you for attending!