Is etiquette passe? I ask myself this question often. I ask it when I am walking out of my college and someone immediately ahead of me on the path lets the gate fall shut in my face. I ask it when “The Entertainer,” “Fur Elise,” or “Nokia Tune” jingles out of somebody’s telephone during a lecture. I ask it as I stand mutely beside a friend who stops to chat with someone I do not know, making no attempt to introduce me to the stranger.
The answer to my question is ambiguous. It depends upon what we mean by etiquette. If etiquette means fastidious table settings, speaking only when spoken to, boys wearing jackets and ties to class, then, yes, perhaps etiquette is passe (though, if you are interested in procuring my admiration, the jacket and tie would not be a bad start). But if what we mean by etiquette is common courtesy and evidence that other people are worth the trouble of taking our elbows off the table, then, defiantly, no; etiquette is a contemporary matter that begs immediate attention.
During winter vacation I read some of a book that I purchased, along with four frosted glass ice cream dishes and eight copper candlesticks, at an estate sale last summer: The 1971 edition of Amy Vanderbilt’s “Etiquette.” For all of Miss Vanderbilt’s snobbery and datedness she is theoretically perfect in her assessment of the undying necessity of manners: “The need for etiquette, for social guidance, is basic and always has been although the ways in which we approach the subject vary from generation to generation. — Without these guidelines we cannot properly relate on to the other and show the consideration necessary in a civilized world.” I realize that quoting Miss Vanderbilt may not be the best way to persuade you that I am not a stickler for old-fashioned hang-ups, but in truth the reconciliation of old-fashioned hang-ups with contemporary laxness is exactly what we need. Many of Yale’s traditions — football games, Master’s Teas, fraternity parties — began according to and because of these very principles.
Not all Yale students are rude; I have actually met a few with impeccable manners. Some students here are fantastically polite: they make good conversation, they follow up on promises, they put their napkins on their laps. This doesn’t sound very difficult, but there are so many different conceptions of manners among us that it is almost impossible for us to be consistently polite. I for one simply do not know what is expected of me beyond saying “please” before a request and “thank you” when it is granted — graces which, thankfully, seem almost second nature to nearly everyone.
In some ways the old rules of etiquette are still relevant. But in some ways they are not. Most Yale students do not follow etiquette’s most basic principles in their quotidian lives. Those who know me will probably roll their eyes and expect a long rant about the decline of table manners or the tragic death of chivalry. In fact, I am just trying to remember that showing my peers respect is not antiquated, embarrassing, or ambiguous — it is essential.
Do people at Yale even care if they are treated rudely? This question is even more perplexing than my first. I have introduced friends to one another only to observe both parties mumble greetings, avoiding eye contact. And nobody seems to have good table manners in college dining halls. (Understand that I refer only to the most basic and intuitive concepts: eating pasta with a fork, wiping one’s mouth with a napkin, holding one’s head above the shoulder blades.)
To this question I have two responses. The first is, yes, people do care. Ask anyone if he enjoys staring at somebody’s back during a conversation, or walking out his entryway door to the welcoming sight of empty beer cans, and he will tell you no. However laid-back a person may be, nobody wants to be tacitly told that he does not matter.
The second response is that people should care. Not only can a lack of manners lead to awkward social situation, but it also reflects poorly on the offender. Manners will only become more important as we get older. A business lunch could be disastrous for the slouching, open-mouthed chewer. Mumbled introductions to future in-laws could establish a hideous lifelong relationship. All hyperbole aside, rest assured that your own pitiful impropriety and lack of courtesy is not your fault. It is nobody’s fault, the outcome of everybody’s neglect. The problem is that our way of life has no established definition for or code of etiquette. The solution is to, quite simply, remember that we are sharing our world and our school with a lot of other people. Holding doors, throwing garbage in trash cans, and turning off our cell phones in libraries are not antiquated traditions at all. They are simple and thoughtful ways of telling the world that we care about it, and that the people around us are worth a little consideration.
Helen Vera is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.