image by William Arthur Fine Stationery
Etiquette was at the top of the list of things I wanted to learn during year of the grown-up. It’s not that I see myself as garishly impolite (though I may be and not know it), but that I want to know an acceptable thing to do in various circumstances that tend to leave me a bit bewildered.
I often find myself in situations where I feel like there is a “standard” way to do something – a way that those “in the know” do it – but I don’t know what it is. So last year I started trying to learn what options are acceptable in various circumstances so that I can worry less about myself and pay more attention to the people and ideas present.
As I began to read about etiquette, I found that there is a distinct difference between etiquette and manners. Etiquette refers to the “rules” that are applied in a given context, while manners refers to the spirit of valuing others above oneself. For example, In the U.S. it is considered good etiquette to not chew with one’s mouth open, which is a natural way to foster a pleasurable dining experience for everyone sharing the table.
Letitia Baldridge explains it well in the “Introduction” of her book Letitia Baldridge’s New Manners for New Times:
Etiquette is protocol, a set of behavior rules you can memorize like a map, which will guide you safely through life. Manners are much more, since they are an expression from the heart on how to treat others whether you care about them or not.
Manners teach you how to value another’s self-esteem and to protect that person’s feelings. Etiquette consists of firm rules made by others who have come before, telling you to do this and do that on specific occasions.
Etiquette means acting with grace and efficiency, very laudable in itself, but your manners are yours, yours to use in making order out of chaos, making people feel comfortable, and giving pleasure to others.
She goes on to explain that helping a bewildered guest discover appropriate etiquette in a specific situation (assuming this is done in generosity and not condescension) is good manners. Which conversely (and ironically) means that those who chastise people for their “bad manners” are displaying bad manners. I find that both comforting and hilarious. But I’m trying not to be smug about it, because that’s rude.
I still have much, much to learn when it comes to etiquette. But I love the idea that I can grow in good manners with no roadmap whatsoever just by making an concerted effort to honor others above myself. As a person who tracks with the teachings of Jesus, that idea isn’t new to me. But in day-to-day life it seems more of a platitude than a practice. When someone breaks something of mine or their kid colors on my favorite lamp, I’m not looking to make sure they continue to enjoy themselves at my home. I’m generally pissed and hoping they feel like crap.
Yeah, my manners could use a little improvement.
Am I the only one who didn’t already have this difference straight in my head? What aspects of etiquette do you wish you knew more about? Which do you wish others knew more about?