We’ve all encountered uncomfortable moments and been in places where we don’t quite know the social expectations of us and acceptable behavior. There are old formal traditions of manners and unspoken rules floating around in society as well as new more casual views on etiquette. This diverse mix of generational viewpoints and upbringings only manages to blur the lines of these social rules and adds confusion. The problem isn’t so much that we don’t all know the “rules,” it’s that we’ve forgotten the core meaning, purpose, and value of etiquette. As a society we see it as just a behavioral expectation being placed on us, but we have forgotten the purpose it ultimately serves.

Etiquette can actually be an expression of respect toward your fellow man. It can be an extension of showing you care by making a friend or guest feel comfortable. Who knew the cold-pressed image of “etiquette” could actually exhibit an expression of respect? I’ll explain.

Let’s take simple table manners. It has been broken down time and time again as protocol – napkin in your lap, elbows off the table, cut off only one bite of your steak at a time… these are just a few of the refined standards that have been passed down each generation from the origins of table manners. Most of these traditions have been passed down by parents to their children. Over time, generations have given less credence to these rules. Why should dinner time be a time to feel like you have to follow a bunch of specific rules? Who can enjoy a social moment when you’re too busy being self conscious?

Table manners can easily turn into a set of protocols that we adopt only to fit a societal mold, but let’s try to look at it from a different perspective – table manners from a perspective of showing consideration and respect for others. When you’re eating with others, what behavior makes you feel uncomfortable or throws off your appetite? You wouldn’t want to watch someone chewing with their mouth open or listen to the gory details of a roadkill story while you’re eating, would you? Table manners at their very basics are about being considerate for others. If you have a guest over for dinner, you may change your behavior slightly at the table. It’s not because you’re trying to pretend to be prim and proper, but because you want them to feel comfortable. Etiquette can actually come from the heart instead of the rule books.

Many people today seem confused about etiquette, and it’s understandable why that is. Much of society has abandoned etiquette because they feel it’s just a complicated constraining set of rules too confusing to uphold. I argue that there is still much value to etiquette that we can adapt and continue to pass down to the next generation once we understand that it can be a positive expression toward others.

Today’s most important implementation for etiquette relates to our use of technology. I guarantee you have encountered this multiple times. When is a call, text, or e-mail most appropriate? When is it appropriate to pull out your cell phone and check a message or take a call in the company of others? You don’t have to compile a list of protocols for this if you simply take the Atticus Finch approach – put yourself in others’ shoes. Then adapt your behavior to show consideration for others. This is etiquette that sprouts from caring about others.

There are so many other situations and places in which etiquette is being completely ignored, or just not given any thought in contemporary society, including:

  • Making plans and following through with them, and on time.
  • Interactions with retail and service workers.
  • Personal conversations vs. public conversations.
  • Driving behavior.
  • Discretion over when political topics are appropriate.

etc, etc, etc.

Society shouldn’t just abandon the concept of etiquette as an older-generation constraint that has no value. Instead we need to revisit the roots of etiquette in a positive light and understand that it’s about respect and consideration for others. Etiquette can be a valuable element of a society when people put forth just a bit of thought and effort into their for simple everyday actions for the sake of others. It shows character and integrity.

What is the most important etiquette that you have personally adopted?