Such a lovely old-world word. It isn’t used often. It makes me think of high tea with fine China and little tiny sandwiches. It makes me think of gentlemen and ladies and well-behaved children. Has that time really gone? Do we now turn our noses up at the idea of etiquette? Perhaps.
Many people look back in horror at the perceived injustices of times long past. Men and women had pre-ordained roles that society dictated. Individuals were expected to act in a particular way, only do jobs that were deemed fit for that particular sex. It had nothing to do with ability and more with perception of what a man or a woman should do. We have evolved. But have we?
In the third millennium BC, the Ancient Egyptian vizier Ptahhotep (2375–2350 BC), wrote a book extolling civil virtues, such as truthfulness, self-control, and kindness towards other people, and that the pursuit of justice should be foremost.
Confucius (551–479 BC) was the Chinese intellectual and philosopher whose works emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, the pursuit of justice in personal dealings, and sincerity in all personal relations.
In the mid-18th century, Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, first used the word etiquette to mean “the conventional rules of personal behaviour in polite society.”
Even more recently, the rise of the Internet has necessitated the adaptation of existing rules of conduct to create Netiquette, which governs the drafting of e-mail, rules for participating in an online forum, and so on. And yet how often do we hear about trolls and scams and malicious viruses?
In society, there are either good manners or bad manners to indicate to a person whether or not his or her behaviour is acceptable to the cultural group. And yet our world is made up of many different cultures who have different manners and customs. Do we dismiss another’s actions because we don’t do it that way? I was offended once by a man who burped after a particularly lovely meal. His wife saw the horror on my face and explained that in their culture that was a sign of respect to the cook. I had never heard that. I was in the wrong. And yet that is exactly what we all do. We judge based on our customs and manners. In a world of 7 billion people with hundreds of cultures and thousands of different customs it’s hard to know what is polite and what is not.
In my research what I found was surprising: each generation was extolling the virtues of kindness, morality, respect and justice. These are concepts that should be universal and should dictate our behaviour. In fact, it does through laws that have been created. And yet these concepts shouldn’t have to be enforced, they should be the way we live. Some people do but far too many do not. Simple respect should be the norm, should be.
Even more surprising was that the concept we classify as etiquette exists in the animal world as well. There is a hierarchy in an assembly of animals that is viciously enforced. In a group each animal has its role to play: there are the protectors and the food gatherers, baby sitters and leaders. For example, In Meerkat families, only the matriarch is allowed to have young. If another female does, she is violently evicted from the troop. Even the solitary animals understand instinctually when they have to come together to procreate.
Human beings have lost many of our instincts that the animal world still uses to function. As a result, we have to put things down in writing or make laws to guide the way we live our lives. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
All I can continue to do is what my mother told me. And of course mothers are never wrong.