Absent etiquette, use instincts

As much as I hate to admit it, and as earnestly I have sought evidence to the contrary, rules of etiquette have become anachronistic. Etiquette is dead. There are no rules.

Gone are the days when housewives in shirtwaists and heels marked a page in the family volume of Emily Post to instruct their daughters in the art of the perfect thank-you note. Maybe we’ll crack open a dusty reference book to remind ourselves of table settings for fancy dinners, or to seek guidance when planning something monumental and public, like a wedding, but the strict rules that governed the everyday are gone. Do I address my neighbor as Mr. Johnson, or just Bill? Do I hand the tip to my hairdresser, or leave it with the receptionist? Is an e-mail an acceptable thank-you note, or does it have to be handwritten? We make these decisions on a more personal, individual basis, whereas in the past there was one comprehensive set of rules to which anybody with a little class knew to turn.

Wait, you may say. How can etiquette be dead when etiquette commentary abounds? The past few years have seen an explosion of books about manners. Popular titles include the fashion-centered “Guide to Elegance,” the male-centered “Modern Gentleman,” and such reference guides as, “The New Etiquette” and “Etiquette for Dummies.” Judith Martin, commonly known as Miss Manners, has written more books and articles than I will bother to list, and the in-your-face pundit Lynne Truss has jumped on the bandwagon with “Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or “Six Good Reasons to Stay at Home and Bolt the Door.” There are books for kids and teens, books for people who hate books, books about business etiquette, books for men, lots of books for women, gift books, reference books, even this column. Etiquette has never been so lucrative.

But it has also never been so snarky, ironic and editorializing — and so minimally focused on actual codes of conduct. The most popular etiquette books today are those in the style of Martin and Truss, while reference materials seem stale, silly and useless. Only a prude or a simpleton would look to “Etiquette for Dummies” for actual advice. Today’s successful etiquette guides aren’t really guides at all, but instead rants against the rude behavior of the masses. The Miss Manners mold of expert is fresh and compelling, but she preaches to the choir; she seeks to commiserate, not to educate.

In a way, it’s just as well. When there are no rules per se, we’re forced to evaluate situations as they arise, determining the course of our actions, and taking it. The absence of rules means that we have to be more vigilant than ever; we aren’t slaves to Emily Post, but we are still citizens of our society, and we still have to deal with each other. How do we address our neighbor? However he tells us to when he introduces himself, or when we specifically ask him. Once good manners become situational, instead of habitual, we become more conscious of their importance and essentiality in all our lives. Social interactions with no maps, no signs ­– no rules — are difficult, but they’re also rewarding and ingenuous.

I do worry that, without rules, we risk becoming more selfish and egocentric than the society-minded good citizens that etiquette has traditionally molded. It is tempting to think about good deeds just as they relate to their use to you personally. If I compliment her, she’ll like me better. If I send my interviewer a follow-up e-mail, I’m more likely to get the job. If I’m nice, Santa will come. Sure, good manners have material rewards, but I am in earnest when I write that their altruistic benefits are also great. Conscientiousness breeds happiness. Manners, whether set in stone or unwritten, ought to exist out of respect for the dignity of others.

Our task as the leaders of this young, etiquette-less generation is to uphold the one rule that is still very much alive: honesty. When there are no rules, no guidelines for actions, the most straightforward solution is almost always the best. As we venture into a world of pushy city types, smarmy businesspeople and phony friends, we must sharpen our wits and observational skills and, in the absence of Emily Post, hold on to the principles that, rules or no rules, will always exist.

Etiquette is dead. Long live etiquette.



Helen Vera is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column has appeared on alternate Fridays.

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