etiquette | ˈedəkət, ˈedəˌket |
the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.
The question, “Why does etiquette even matter?” often comes up via the teenagers in our house, especially since we have one who finds many social rules baffling. Until recently I’ve cited Amy Vanderbilt’s explanation, that etiquette rules were designed to help everyone feel comfortable and cared for in any given social situation.
But over the last few years, as standards of behavior in-person and online have devolved into screaming matches, ad hominem attacks, and all-around general boorishness, even among those from whom we once expected the highest of protocol standards, like politicians, journalists, and celebrities (yes, even movie stars used to practice dignity and decorum), another, more inherently compelling rationale has emerged:
We teach our children etiquette so they can do the right thing before they possess the experience, maturity, and wisdom to know what the right thing is and why it’s a better choice.
The thing our egos most want to do is rarely the thing that’s most beneficial for us. Who really wants to sit down and write thank-you notes on December 26? Does anyone intrinsically want to give up their comfortable seat on the metro to the elderly person, and spend the rest of the trip gripping a pole to keep from being thrown into someone else’s lap? When called an idiot by someone who seems to embody that description himself, what saint really wants to say, “Good day, I wish you well,” before exiting the conversation?
But when we’ve learned proper behavior we write the notes, we sacrifice for someone weaker, and we treat others with respect, even if we don’t think they really deserve it. Good manners make society a better place to live.
Not only that, our own lives are better for practicing good manners.
I once got a job instead of the three other finalists because I answered a loaded interview question with a polite answer rather than a self-aggrandizing one. I kept from making a jerk of myself and losing a friend by not saying what I thought about a situation before I learned all the details about it. (I would’ve been 100% wrong in my uninformed opinion.) I’ve won people over to my side of an argument not because I argued with and convinced them, but because they were spectators to a discussion where the other party behaved like a foul-mouthed child and I kept my words respectful.
But even more valuable than the extrinsic rewards are the character traits we cultivate when we practice good manners. I learn to be grateful when I write thank-you notes. I learn to be noble when I sacrifice for someone else’s benefit. I learn self-control when I bite my intractable tongue.
Aren’t those some of the very things we lack in our culture today? Gratitude, nobility, self-control?
Do we even value them anymore?
Our me-centered society seems to be grinding down to its logical conclusion: “Everything is about me, myself, and I, and the rest of the world can go to hell.”
Well, it certainly seems we are.