The Importance of Etiquette
The Importance of Etiquette

Some people argue that etiquette no longer matters, that the rules for good behavior are old-fashioned and out of date.  However, good behavior and manners are never out of style. Etiquette, like all other cultural behaviors, evolves to match the times. Without etiquette, members of society would show far too much impatience and disrespect for one another, which would lead to insults, dishonesty, cheating, road rage, fist fights, and a rash of other unfortunate incidents. 

Etiquette is merely a set of guidelines for politeness and good manners, the kindnesses with which we should always treat each other. It will always matter! 

What Is Etiquette? 

Etiquette, the complex network of rules that govern good behavior and our social and business interactions, is always evolving and changing as society changes.  It reflects our cultural norms, generally accepted ethical codes, and the rules of various groups we belong to.   

It helps us show respect and consideration to others and makes others glad that we are with them. Without proper manners and etiquette, the customs of polite society would soon disappear and we would act more like animals and less like people. Aggressiveness and an "every man for himself" attitude would take the lead. 

In earlier times, the rules of etiquette were used for two purposes: to remind people of their own status within society and to reinforce certain restrictions on individuals within that society.

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, for instance, etiquette dictated everything from how low a person of inferior rank had to bow to a person of higher rank to how long a man had to spend courting a woman before the two could marry. 

Even the way a person mourned was strictly outlined by rules of etiquette until as recently as the Civil War era in the United States. Widows then were expected to dress in "widow's weeds," or completely black clothing and veils, for a full year after the death of a husband. 

These types of rules in earlier society were usually determined by the ruling classes because they served the purpose of making them more secure in their roles as the rulers of society. By far, the most strenuously enforced rules of etiquette were tied to how one showed respect for the king and his highest ranking officials, such as dukes and princes.  It reinforced their authority. 

The rules of etiquette concerning marriage, mourning, and other major events of life largely applied only to the ruling classes or the wealthy. Peasants and workers, as long as they followed the rules of etiquette pertaining to respecting their superiors, were not expected to follow formalized rules of courtship; they tended to base their own "rules" of courtship on good manners and common sense.

Over the centuries, as society has become more democratic, etiquette has become an excellent combination of good manners, common sense, and rules of conduct that reflect cultural norms and the rules of our society as a whole rather than just one distinct group within it.  It has less to do with the fashion of the moment or who is in power and more to do with putting others at ease and an ethical code of conduct.

Etiquette in Today's Society

Today's etiquette serves several important functions: 


·         Etiquette provides personal security. Knowing how to behave appropriately in a given situation makes you more comfortable.

·         It protects the feelings of others. Proper etiquette requires that you make others comfortable and protect their feelings. You do not point out their errors or draw attention to their mistakes.

·         It makes communication clearer. Etiquette enhances communication by breaking down barriers, not erecting them.

·         It will enhance your status at work. In any working situation, you are perceived as more capable, more professional, and more intelligent if you are familiar with the proper code of conduct for the workplace. 

·         It makes good first impressions. The first five to seven seconds after you meet someone are crucial. Your first impression lingers in the other person's mind long after you are gone.  If you use proper etiquette, that first impression will be a positive one.


Society and our culture are now changing so fast that it is hard for the rules of etiquette to keep up. As quickly as a book of etiquette is published, a new form of communication is developed or a new style of dating becomes all the rage and someone declares the latest etiquette book "hopelessly outdated."   Keep in mind that etiquette is meant to be a guideline, not a set of strict rules carved in stone. Those guidelines are developed using common sense, a sense of fairness, politeness, and above all, consideration for others.  If you let consideration for others be your final arbiter, you will be well on your way to being the kind of polite person who understands the rules of etiquette instinctively.

Etiquette Begins at Home

The reason many young people today do not know much about etiquette is because they never learned it at home--parents no longer directly teach children and teenagers etiquette. If you are reading this to learn more about proper manners and how to practice etiquette in public, your best bet is to start practicing it in private.  It is difficult to switch on good behavior only when you feel like you "need to."  In fact, we really should not be on our best behavior only around people we barely know or want to impress. Our best behavior should be for the people we love: our friends and family.

Therefore, practice the highest standards of etiquette at home. Be sure to be polite and kind toward your spouse, parents, and children, especially your children, so they will learn from example the proper way to treat other people. If they grow up with etiquette ingrained in them, they will find it easier to form lasting relationships, be successful in their jobs, and move through life as the kind of people others enjoy being around.  

You also will find that etiquette becomes second nature to you rather than a set of rules, and your own life will be more pleasant.  People respond positively to those who are nice to them and who treat them with respect.  Proper etiquette guides you in how to do this without "missing something" because you simply were not aware that something you did or did not do might be offensive to the other person.

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The Common Courtesies of Life 

The common courtesies of life are the endless little gestures we make almost unconsciously as we move through our day. As we go to work and muddle through our day, we interact with bus drivers, waitresses, people on the street, and countless others. How we interact with these individuals can affect their day and ours. The common courtesies of life, from treating a frazzled server with respect to smiling at the person seated across from us on the bus, should never be forgotten.

Moving Through Your Day


Getting through the day can be rough for some of us. If you have a busy schedule, a grueling day at work, or one of your kids is sick, you may have a lot on your mind that puts you in a foul mood. The people around you may be feeling just as miserable, but you do not necessarily want their misery dumped on you, so do not share yours with them. Instead, take the time to be courteous and uphold the small courtesies of life, even when you feel like you would like to sock someone in the nose. Other people will feel better and so will you if you keep making the effort to be polite and share a brief smile or pleasantry.

From Here to There

Whether you are walking, taking a cab or using public transportation, you will interact with others while you go from point A to point B.  Do not act like you are the only person on the sidewalk or road or assume you have the right of way in every situation.  Etiquette calls for defensive driving and regard for the safety of others in every situation.   

·         Pedestrians should never cross traffic against the traffic light.  It insinuates you are above the law and have no regard for drivers on the road. 

·         When you are walking, do not avoid eye contact. Look at others and smile, giving them a brief nod. It may give them a pleasant start to their day.  Do not stare; however, a brief glance and smile are friendly and appropriate without making the other person uncomfortable. 

·         Drivers should never use their car horn unless it is an emergency and they are trying to warn someone to get out of the way. When you honk at someone because you are irritated on a busy city street, you are not only bothering that person, you are annoying dozens of other people around you. 

·         If you tend to drive slowly, stay in the right lane. If you are in the left lane, you are not only being impolite, you are endangering other drivers who will have to weave in and out of lanes more to get past you.

If you use public transportation, keep in mind that the person driving is a professional and should be treated with respect. This person is also going to be holding your life in his or her hands for the duration of your travels in that vehicle, which is not something to be taken lightly.

·         Always greet the driver when you get on a bus or into a taxi and thank the person when you leave.

·         If you see someone running to catch the bus, let the bus driver know so that she or he can wait if possible.

·         If you and another person get to a taxi at the same time, offer to share the ride with him or her. If you are not in a hurry and the other party is headed in the opposite direction, consider offering the person the taxi and hail another one for yourself. 

·         Any time you are riding on public transportation and see a person who may be uncomfortable standing for any length of time, offer that person your seat. This includes pregnant women, the elderly, anyone on crutches, the disabled, or the blind.

·         Do not let your possessions infringe on others' personal space.  If you get on public transportation with shopping bags, a brief case, or sample cases, do not put them on the seat next to you or set them in the aisle where others can trip over them.  If you can, put them underneath the seat; if you cannot, hold them on your lap. Otherwise, hold everything as tightly to your sides as possible. Remember, buses and other transportation services are for people and are not meant to be your personal delivery service.


Services and Places You Visit 

There are lots of places you may go during the course of your day, from restaurants to the dry cleaners. Treat every person you meet with the same amount of respect, regardless of where the person works. The days of courtesy being a product of the recipient's station in life are long gone. For one thing, you have no way of knowing if the person behind the counter is a recent high school graduate or holds a doctorate in nuclear physics. The world is changing rapidly and very few people are working in their chosen field. For another thing, everyone deserves courtesy and respect for doing his or her job; there is no dishonorable work.


·         At the dry cleaners or any other service where you are picking up something you have left for cleaning or repairs, try to have your ticket or receipt.  Yes, the employee can look up your name, but this takes longer and complicates matters. The receipt was given to you for a reason, and the staff will appreciate your having it ready. 

·         When a salesperson is helping you, be sure you are clear about what you want and ask for help with graciousness. Do not be patronizing or demanding.  Remember that the person is helping you and offer thanks sincerely.

·         Always be ready to pay when you reach the register. Digging for your wallet, checkbook, or credit card after you are informed of the amount of purchase tells a cashier and everyone behind you that you do not see anyone else's time as valuable. While your items are being scanned or before you approach the register if you are paying a restaurant tab, get your wallet or checkbook ready.

·         If you have to move in front of others to get to your seats at a theater, face the people, not the stage or movie screen. They would much rather see your face than your butt. Remember to excuse yourself and apologize for the inconvenience. 

·         Grocery stores are for your convenience, but do not take advantage of the employees by putting back items in the wrong place, leaving carts in the parking lot, or other thoughtless gestures. It only takes a moment to put things back where they belong if you have decided you do not want them and to place a cart in the cart return. Employees waste time rounding up misplaced objects, and when your car is damaged by a cart in the parking lot, you will understand why the cart returns are there.

Restaurant Staff 

Servers in restaurants are some of the most abused people in the service world, which is a real shame. These workers are on their feet for hours, serving several tables at the same time. Most of the time, they have memorized their establishment's menus and know each day's specials as well. They keep track of everyone's orders, check regularly to make sure customers have all they need, refill drinks, and generally try to keep customers happy; and they do all of this for less than minimum wage. They rely on tips for most of their income, so they make every effort to please their customers. Proper etiquette demands that you make the lives of servers as enjoyable and easy as possible by knowing how to interact with them properly.


·         Give your server your full attention when he or she is speaking at all times and do not carry on conversations when others at your table are ordering; it is rude and makes it difficult for your server to hear clearly in a noisy restaurant.

·         Listen carefully when he or she is reviewing the specials and answering any questions so that your party will not have to ask for lots of repetitions.

·         If your server introduces himself or herself to you by name, use that person's name when addressing him or her. 

·         It is not the waiter's fault if your order is prepared incorrectly; the server did not cook it. Keep this in mind when you ask the server to send it back to the kitchen. 

·         Never raise your voice, even if you are dissatisfied with your service. There is no reason to create a scene or humiliate your server in public. You can make your opinion known politely by speaking to him or her in an appropriate tone of voice. If you cannot reach a satisfactory resolution, ask to speak to a manager.

·         The standard tip for good service is 15 percent to 20 percent for excellent service. If your service is less than adequate, you should tip 10 percent.  Keep in mind that this is the bulk of your server's income.


The Sound of Silence

One of the most commonly ignored rules of etiquette today seems to be the rule that each individual deserves the dignity of a bit of peace and quiet. The old adage that "Silence is golden" still holds true, but people are increasingly ignoring it on subways, in parks, in restaurants, and even in work environments.  The person sitting next to you or across from you does not want to be forcibly held hostage to whatever sounds you may be listening to or making. 

Keep these etiquette tips in mind in order to respect other's "sound space." 

·         Do not use your MP3 player at such a volume that it can be heard beyond the range of your earphones whenever you are in public. The reason the device has earphones is to make listening a private endeavor.

·         Remember that, while you may think your children's endless chatter is adorable, most strangers will not. They do not have any personal interest invested in your children and may want to take advantage of the spare moments on the train to take a quick nap. Keep your children engaged in a quiet conversation or activity.

·         Cell phone conversations should be kept to an absolute minimum. No one else wants to hear the intimate details of your life. There will be more on cell phone etiquette in a later chapter. 

·         On tours, such as in museums, do not carry on conversations with a companion while the tour guide is talking. Not only is it disrespectful to the guide, it makes it difficult for those close to you to concentrate on what they are trying to hear.

·         In theaters, do not carry on conversations or make comments during the show. No one paid to hear your opinions or commentary on the production.  This includes anything you might feel like saying during the previews of movies. While you might not be interested in the previews, others may very much want to see them. During intermission, conversations should be carried on softly enough that others cannot overhear what you are saying unless they are part of the conversation.

The Little Things Count

An etiquette guide cannot address every possible situation you will face as you move through life. There are countless situations in life when you will have the opportunity to practice small kindnesses that will reveal your true character. Each little act may improve someone else's life a bit and that person may pass it on to someone else, so take the time to show kindness to strangers. 

How?  Open the door for someone weighted down by packages. Hold the elevator for someone who is running to catch it.  Apologize to anyone you bump into. Offer your place in line to someone with just a few items. Help a co-worker who is behind on a project. 

If each of us practices both the small and large gestures of etiquette every day to those around us that we barely know, the domino effect will quickly spread, making life much nicer for all of us.

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