Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Questions about Manners and Etiquette

Manners are such a tricky topic. They vary so widely among families, classes, and cultures. What is commonplace in one setting is horribly rude in another. To complicate matters further, manners are often arbitrary. Why, for example, is holding up one's thumb congratulatory, but the middle finger is insulting? Why are some words considered unfit for polite company, despite originally having innocuous meanings? Why are dishes passed counterclockwise in a family setting?


Although there may be good historical answers to these questions, very few people today know the origin of many rules of etiquette (myself included). At what point, then, should a rule of etiquette be retired? If the only function of a rule is to make obvious who belongs and who doesn't, then the rule is no longer fulfilling the spirit of manners, which is to be considerate of others. However, if I decide that a rule is outdated and stop following it, I become inconsiderate of those who still find it important.

Personally, I find good manners to be very important. This is why I am sociable even when I'd rather be curled up with a good book and why I compromise even when I know think I am right. I try to be considerate of others, regardless of the situation. I have little patience for people who are rude. I am somewhat easily hurt, reacting to inconsiderate comments or actions as if they were deliberate slights (because if I had said or done it, it would have been on purpose).

Things that bother me include baiting someone, swearing, and repeated interruptions. In some circumstances, I am bothered by inappropriate clothing for the occasion, but this is becoming less insulting as I realize that most people truly consider jeans to be acceptable in almost any situation. I am grossed out by bad table manners (mouth open, blowing one's nose, loud burps). I think thank you, you're welcome, excuse me, and sorry are hard to overuse.
And I have no idea about the rules of golf...

There are other rules of etiquette that, while I appreciate their presence, I do not miss in their absence. Having the door held for me, using the right silverware at the right time, or being introduced when meeting new people. Also, I'm certain there are rules I don't even know that I likely break on a regular basis.

Finally, there are the constantly evolving rules of technology. Is it acceptable to text while talking to someone in person? I'd say no. What about accept an incoming call? Probably... Should call waiting be used? How? What is the acceptable limit of time to take before responding to a voice message or text? What topics can be discussed in an email or on Facebook and which should be saved for face-to-face? I don't know.

Is it possible to draw a line on the continuum of manners, to decide which are non-negotiable, beneficial, or superfluous? Where do manners originate and how can they be retired? What are you teaching your children?

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