Basic etiquette, or the unspoken code of polite behavior among civilized people, has eroded a lot over the last few decades. If you need proof, visit Twitter or pop into a Walmart on a Saturday morning.
Please note, I am not trying to sermonize here. I, too, have etiquette issues. Yesterday, I flipped a woman off in traffic (she was tailgating mercilessly) and my mom, in the passenger seat, only expressed her fear that my road rage would get me shot someday. She didn’t even comment on my rudeness, probably because I’m 37 years old and scolding me would be useless. I am just one example of how far our society’s standards of polite behavior have fallen.
Etiquette used to be taught in school, right along with all of the other basic skills that kids needed to know in order to be productive, successful adults. Therefore, when I decided that I needed a refresher course in why etiquette is so important, I turned to a school textbook from 1940, by Lillian N. Reid: Personality and Etiquette. Below, I’ve reproduce the lesson in its entirety.
If you’re anything like me, you should probably read this. And take notes. And stop flipping people off in traffic.
The Kindly Aim of Etiquette
A SIMILARITY AND A DIFFERENCE
Cave Man, No. 1, bumped by Cave Man, No. II, probably howled with rage and planted his big fist in No. II’s big, ruddy face! When Heedless Harriet banged into you and spilled a semester’s notebook all over the aisle, you probably swallowed your angry words, and with mouth in a tight-lipped straight line, started quietly to pick up the scattered papers. But the feeling within you and within Cave Man, No. I, was very much alike. The difference lies in the way you and Cave Man, No. I, acted. Long centuries of living together have developed a certain self-control and certain customs that result in more happy and more gracious living.
ETIQUETTE’S KINDLY AIMS AND POWERS
But wait, a little more modern etiquette is stepping in to help you out. You hear Heedless Harriet saying, as she helps repair the damage, “I’m very sorry,” or “I beg your pardon.” What a difference these words make! The resentment inside you melts away, and your tight-lipped mouth curves into a gracious smile. Such are the kindly aims and powers of the custom of etiquette!
Likewise, rules of etiquette are made for your convenience. Why is a knife placed at the right of the plate? Etiquette answers, “Most people are right-handed and naturally use the knife in the right hand; therefore, it’s handy.”
“Why,” you might ask, “have any rules at all? Why not place the knives to suit one’s own fancy?”
Etiquette answers, “All people are creatures of habit; therefore, this established custom saves them the inconvenience and embarrassment of fumbling about to locate said knives.” Consequently, if you will analyze other rules of etiquette, you will find that they, too, are founded on convenience and kindness.
Etiquette keeps up to date. If our modes of living change greatly, the rules of etiquette that do not fit are discarded, and others develop. Our modern athletic girl does not need exactly the same help from her young companion that was needed by her hoop-skirted, many-petticoated sister of long ago, but her heart beats just as loud a pitter-patter in response to the present-day courtesies of her modern hero.
Rules of etiquette, then, are founded on the golden rule, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” Our customs are founded on kindness, convenience, and good fellowship. Modern etiquette is sane, sensible, even streamlined to meet the tempo of the day. Let’s inform ourselves of these accepted usages, practice them till they are as automatic as tying our shoe, then be free to give our attention to joyous, gallant living!
There is ever a song somewhere, my dear.
–JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY
Beginning tomorrow, I will do my part to behave more graciously. On my way to Starbucks in the morning, if someone tailgates me, I will not roll my window down and stick my arm out angrily into the frigid morning air to flip them the bird. I will ease over into the right-hand lane and smile serenely, refraining from yelling obscene epithets at the impatient person as they blaze past me in their rush to get to Starbucks first. Instead, silently, I will wish them a lovely fricking day.
To better etiquette,