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Author Topic: What is the purpose of etiquette?  (Read 4919 times)

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Re: What is the purpose of etiquette?
« Reply #15 on: December 27, 2013, 10:17:08 AM »
I suspect that it was my comment in another thread that prompted this question.

I agree with many PP that etiquette forms a set of rules to allow social interactions to go more smoothly. Like most human inventions it's inconsistent in places and very arbitrary in others, but it gives us a base-line of "what can/must I do in this situation?" One of the big flaws about etiquette is that it isn't really well codified -- there's no definitive document that says what is and isn't polite. That gives people room to add their own rules and call them "etiquette." There's the classic "it's rude not to give my child that toy, because she did say 'please'" that shows up in threads once in a while. Lots of people here have been called "rude" when they were no such thing. There are people who use etiquette to control others, not to facilitate interactions. Nobody likes being called rude, so that gives them some control.

Being polite doesn't mean that we have to take whatever other people give us. We are allowed to speak up for ourselves and remain polite. The "it's rude to point out someone's rudeness" refers more to someone passing gas in company, or using the wrong fork at dinner. If we take it to its extreme, though, it makes etiquette another tool for bullies and boors to run the show. A "polite spine" is just that -- polite.

My comment in the other thread was that there is a popular misconception about etiquette -- that its purpose is to make people comfortable. I stand by my contention that it isn't. Making people comfortable is s nice side-effect, but it's not the goal. Being nice to people and making them comfortable should always be given high consideration but etiquette gives us a set of rules that can be used when we can't be as nice or considerate as we would like.

I cited Miss Manners' "How kind of you to take an interest" as an example of something that is entirely polite, but is specifically designed to make the other person uncomfortable. It's communicating to the other person that they've badly overstepped a boundary. Rude would be "None of your @%&*)@ business, you micro-cephalic cretin!"

Even if we're not trying to make someone feel bad, being polite can still cause hurt feelings. Etiquette says that we can turn away an uninvited guest. Etiquette says that we don't have to invite our second cousin thrice removed to our wedding, yet both of these can make people unhappy and carry social consequences. It's a misuse of etiquette for the uninvited guest or the cousin to use their hurt to accuse someone of being rude.

Please don't take what I've written as any belief that we shouldn't work to make those around us comfortable. Life is much better when everybody is happier. I just don't want people to twist themselves into etiquette knots trying to be both polite and kind when the two are not compatible.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.


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Re: What is the purpose of etiquette?
« Reply #16 on: December 27, 2013, 11:16:44 AM »
As others have said, etiquette is a 'guideline' for how we interact with each other and respect each other.  We share a space, so these guidelines are meant to help us make better decisions.

I strongly believe that these are 'guidelines'...not hard and fast rules.  If etiquette were black and white, it would be easy...but it would also be useless.  There needs to be room for cultural differences, specificities in situations, motivation, etc. Black and white etiquette, is, in my opinion, a myth, and those that rely on it give me (and this is just my opinion) the impression that they aren't comfortable enough with their own sense of judgement and 'need' specific black and white rules to function.  Often those individuals come off as judgemental and needlessly harsh.   

A good example is the "no baby showers for subsequent children" guideline.  So many are hard and fast on this...but to me, the situation makes all the difference.  If the shower is thrown because those that are throwing it and attending it genuinely want to do something nice, then there's nothing wrong with it. The mother is under no obligation to deny her family/friends for fear that some outsider will call her a 'gimme pig'.  To me, the 'no second showers' guideline is just a guide that states that generally, by the second child the parents have the things they need and won't be so overly burdened with having to purchase things for a baby that needing friends to step in and help out isn't necessary.  At the same time,  that 'rule' also implies that first showers are mandatory in civilized/polite society...and I think this is a fallacy.  They are nice to do...neither required nor mandated.  Yet some people get so worked up over it.  Etiquette isn't meant to make us that uncomfortable nor are they meant to cause offense when we witness someone who isn't following those guidelines to a T.   


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Re: What is the purpose of etiquette?
« Reply #17 on: December 27, 2013, 01:33:10 PM »
Artk, I especially loved this part of your post:

If we take it to its extreme, though, it makes etiquette another tool for bullies and boors to run the show. A "polite spine" is just that -- polite.

I have a tiny possible (probably not) disagreement, though -- I'd agree that "How kind of you to take an interest" is an etiquette-sanctioned response to an inappropriate question.  But I wouldn't say that it is therefore always "entirely polite."  I can think of circumstances in which it might not be.  Maybe the question was innocent or just ignorant or pretty minor, or maybe the tone was ultra-frosty and accompanied by a withering glare designed for maximum humiliation of the questioner, loud enough to be heard by as many people as possible.  I think that would be a rude use of etiquette, especially with regard to innocent bystanders who could be embarrassed or a host whose party you'd be bringing down with drama.  I prefer to change the subject -- believe the ehell term is "beandip" -- instead if possible.  Other times I ask a variation of "Why do you want to know?" in which I try to make it sound like "If I know the reason for your question, I can give you a more useful answer," even though I'm really just trying to avoid the nosy question.

Anything that is designed to teach a rude person a lesson by giving a snappy answer or humiliating them usually backfires, in my experience.  Instead of examining their own behavior, which they might have done otherwise, they feel defensive instead.  No one learns much when they feel stupid and called out. 

Take the Margo & Claudia string, which is likely the one you meant.  Of course Claudia was wrong.  But I imagine her takeaway from the evening was to think, "I can't believe Margo treated me like that!  She said it was okay for the boys and me to stay, but all evening she made it clear she resented it.  Why didn't she just say "sorry, no" in the first place?  She knew I would've been okay with that.  I guess I should've called ahead, but I didn't deserve this kind of punishment for staying when she told me to."  If Margo had either privately explained that she wouldn't be able to accommodate Claudia and the boys in the first place, or else privately discussed the food situation and possible solutions with Claudia and asking Claudia to help her reset the table and fix tuna sandwiches before the other guests came in to the dining room, Claudia would have seen how her rudeness created problems for Margo as a host without getting distracted by her own hurt feelings.  She may be unteachable.  But if not, I think there would be a much better chance of educating her that way than by behaving in a way that is correct per etiquette but nevertheless PA and shaming (albeit very understandably!).

So my question is, does good manners, if not specific etiquette rules, require us to take the path of least harm when we have a choice?  Some etiquette rules seem to suggest that -- such as replying "I'm sorry, I have other plans that day" instead of "No, I don't want to come to your party because it will be boring" or not mentioning in a thank you note that you received 5 items identical to the person's gift. 

Does provocation or others' rudeness change anything?  If I'm going to say "How kind of you to take an interest," should I say it as nicely as possible or is it equally polite to say it with a poison glare?  If someone directs a sexist or bigoted comment at me, is it just as polite for me to scream at them that their hate disgusts me as to simply excuse myself, blink in stunned silence, or just say quietly, "Wow."  Does it matter whether the question was "Wow, Gellchom, you sure do sneeze a lot; are you sick?" or "Wow, Gellchom, you sure do eat a lot; is that why you're so fat?"

To me, your "a 'polite spine' is just that -- polite" says it.  You stand up for yourself, but you do so with your best behavior, which may be more than simply following an etiquette rule.


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Re: What is the purpose of etiquette?
« Reply #18 on: December 27, 2013, 01:54:52 PM »
Great thread!  On the issue of prisons having etiquette, I think this is a very good point, especially if it's generalized to include other groupings like regional.  I think etiquette is different from societal norms/traditions, because it teaches us how to adhere to them in ways that are most likely to be productive and least likely to hurt others.  (As Art frequently points out, not to be confused with becoming a doormat).  Etiquette isn't so much about *what* you do as it is *how* you do it.

If I had to sum it up as a bumper sticker, I'd use the Hippocratic Oath:  First, do no harm.