What is etiquette?

The leading etiquette consultants in our world say that etiquette is specifically about being selfless, rather than selfish. That is, to think of others, adjusting, modifying, and regulating our behaviour through a series of customs, rules and habits. That is right, and I would dare to go further and say that etiquette is a shadow of our civility, who we are as a culture and as individuals to one and other. Etiquette enlightens communication by raising the standards of interaction in order to treat others better, but to do so in a way that really works.

Why do we need it?

Is any of this relevant to our modern life? Etiquette and even more simply – manners, are more relevant than ever. Given the rise of technology and the digital world, we spend a vast majority of our lives through a screen and our real-life interaction skills have suffered because we do not really practice them anymore or see much of a primary role for them.

It seems that our standards for manners are lower than they have ever been before, especially in a country such as ours which has led the world in etiquette. The Victorian Era put proper etiquette as we know it on the map, though admittedly they took it to meticulous extremes. This era had finished, and many things changed, socially, culturally, and materially since then. It was simply the case that life in its entirety had completely altered, and what therefore etiquette anymore?

But is it really true to say that life had irrevocably transformed? Are we no longer humans, do we no longer eat and drink, wear clothes or converse with others? Of course we do. Etiquette is old-fashioned because life is old-fashioned. There are plenty of things that will simply never change.

You can ask anyone if they think manners are important and useful, and the answer will be unanimous. The problem is that we rarely know what they are, and while many people do not care, there are many that do and want to learn. We do not know how to conduct ourselves properly, how to eat, drink, talk, walk, greet, converse, stand, sit, the list goes on. It does not matter who you are or wherever you are in the world, you will always need good manners. The mere fact we have smartphones does not and ought not to change any of that. While our material circumstances have changed, the purpose and utility of etiquette has not.

Progress should mean that we are always changing the world
to fit the vision, instead we are always changing the vision.

– G.K. Chesterton

Etiquette and manners are exactly what we need today, not every last bit of strenuous detail that the many Victorians had to live by, but the good and proper basics that we all need.

What difference does it make?

Even if you are not convinced and still think it all too overdone and only useful for a specific reserve of society, then allow me to persuade you otherwise from your perspective.

You may have noticed that when you are younger you may not have a high regard for your use of language; teenagers frequently speak in a short, cut and chopped way that makes communication for them very quick and easy. The teenagers who insist on growing up, alas many of them rarely do these days, they start to use language properly, full and correct sentences, better pronunciation regardless of dialect. What is the reason? They do this, either known or unknown to them, because if they want to go anywhere in the world, if they intend on having social mobility then it will become apparent to them that they have to conform to the way the world really works, in this case, how language works. Language is kind of objective (my philosophical analysis pending) reality and the way we use it really does make a difference. I cannot just decide that I will remove syllables and say that it is perfectly fine with me and everyone else should not think otherwise.

Likewise, etiquette is just a fact of the world when we admit that it is not ultimately the minuscule details of a Victorian aristocratic luncheon, but the way we conduct ourselves as civilised human beings anywhere, at any time, in any era, and with anybody. So I too cannot just decide that it does not matter if I do not  produce my hand to greet someone or continue talking whilst masticating violently, that no one should judge me and think any less of me. There is an inextricable link with how I behave and who I am. Etiquette benefits everyone, whether they like it or not, because it represents something real in the world.

How much of it do we need, is it really all necessary?

You may be convinced that you need some degree of manners and skill, but not yet persuaded that you need to obey so many rules, do you have to? Well, yes and no, but mostly yes. Firstly, it depends on the setting. In some environments the rules may be laxer and you can afford to be more individual in your approach (e.g. in your own home) but in many others (a formal dining event) you definitely should follow the rules.

Though there is a reason why I say ‘mostly yes’, and it is for the following. Until you know most of the essentials and rules, you do not really have the knowledge to know when to break them, if any rule is to be broken at all. For you might decide to break one rule and then break another, and this is what I warn against. The moment you decide that it is not necessary to do something that you normally should, say, not using a napkin at all rather than placing it on your lap, then what next? ‘Do I really have to break the scone, I can’t just cut it?!’

I am a firm believer in the slippery slope in most cases, and believe that the majority of us suffer from the insolence in believing our minor actions to matter so little. Au contraire, in the example I have just given, if you think it is needless to place your napkin on your lap, why is it not needless to break your scone instead of cutting it, and if so, then why is it not needless to close my mouth while chewing, surely it matters what I say, not how I say it, right?! This is the kind of individualist speak that plagues the modern world: the belief that my thoughts and behavior matter mostly to me only and if nobody likes it, then that is their problem And so the Gramscian-style salami-slicing of good manners begins.

Feel free to pursue this path, but do not be surprised when you encounter many with beliefs to the contrary, should you be lucky enough to do so. For as long as you think it is superfluous and tedious to have proper deportment, the more unlikely it is for you to go anywhere in life. You want to be successful? How about that one business lunch, upon which a huge deal depends, and your potential investor sees the way you lounge your elbows over the table while embarking on a political discussion instead of avoiding that taboo subject? Needless to say how successful that lunch will go.

Final Word

Apart from sounding like an outrageous snob, the reality of the matter these days is quite the opposite. I want everybody to understand that etiquette is just about manners, and surely, we all want good manners. Therefore, the more people who do it, the better. It can be fun, interesting and really does shed light on life more than people think. The very basic nature of human society is our behavior to one and other, and that nature is thus as old as human society itself. Coming into contact with that really does anchor you in the present moment in a kind of Burkean conversation, as it were, with past and future warmly beside you. I would have thought that a higher recommendation were not possible to give.

Victorian Tea Room