Emily Post's Etiquette, 17th Edition
Guidelines for Living
"The world is too much with us," Wordsworth wrote in 1807, and his phrase has taken on a whole new meaning in the twenty-first century. In fact, the old boy would probably be running for cover if a time machine whisked him to streets full of people rushing about as though there were no tomorrow -- many of them yelling into small metal objects held to their ears.
It would be easy for us to sympathize with him. While scientific and medical advancements have made life easier over the years, the stresses and strains that have come with population density, technological advancements, all-pervasive news and entertainment media, and a redefinition of the family have resulted in a whole new set of challenges. People behave no worse than they used to (rudeness and other social offenses are nothing new), but the pressures of modern life make it all the more difficult to stay civil.
What's needed for this day and age? New guidelines for courteous behavior, especially in a time when it often seems that "anything goes." It's true that a more casual approach to dressing, communicating, and entertaining has taken hold, but that's hardly something to be concerned about. The history of human interaction is one of change, and manners by their very nature adapt to the times. Today's guidelines help steer our behavior as we move through our daily routines -- no matter what difficulties we face, how informal the occasion or event, or which surprises are sprung. In fact, it can be said that we need manners more than ever to smooth the way.
Although today's manners are more situational, tailored to particular circumstances and the expectations of those around us, they remain a combination of common sense, generosity of spirit, and a few specific "rules" that help us interact thoughtfully. And as fluid as manners are (and always have been), they rest on the same bedrock principles: respect, consideration, and honesty.
Respect. Respecting other people means recognizing their value as human beings, regardless of their background, race, or creed. A respectful person would also never treat a salesperson, a waiter, or an office assistant as somehow inferior. Respect is demonstrated in all your day-to-day relations -- refraining from demeaning others for their ideas and opinions, refusing to laugh at racist or sexist jokes, putting prejudices aside, and staying open-minded.
Self-respect is just as important as respect for others. A self-confident person isn't boastful or pushy but is secure with herself in a way that inspires confidence in others. She values herself regardless of her physical attributes or individual talents, understanding that honor and character are what really matter.
Consideration. Thoughtfulness and kindness are folded into consideration for other people. Consideration also encapsulates the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Being thoughtful means thinking about what you can do to put people at ease, while kindness is more about acts. Taken together, these qualities lead us to help a friend or stranger in need, to bestow a token of appreciation, to offer praise.
Honesty. Honesty has more to do with ethics than etiquette, but the two are intertwined. What could be more unmannerly than being deceptive? Honesty ensures that we act sincerely and is also the basis of tact: speaking and acting in ways that won't cause unnecessary offense.
A tactful person can say something honest about another person without causing great embarrassment or pain. In other words, tact calls for both empathy and benevolent honesty: "I like the other bathing suit on you better" is honest, while "That bathing suit makes you look fat" may be equally true but amounts to an insult.
Two Other Essential Qualities
Graciousness and deference are also part and parcel of mannerly behavior. Graciousness is the ability to handle situations with aplomb and flexibility, while showing deference can be as easy as removing one's hat in a place of worship.
The mark of a gracious person is his ability to put people at ease and spare them any embarrassment. (You're being gracious when someone forgets your name during an introduction and you say, "Oh, please don't feel bad! I'm always drawing a blank when I try to remember names.") It's easy to forget that "gracious" is the adjective form of "grace," which dictionaries variously define as "good will; favor"; "thoughtfulness toward others"; and "a sense of what is right and proper." By any definition, grace is a quality anyone should strive to achieve.
Deference is primarily a means of recognizing a person's experience and accomplishments. Courtesies like standing when an older person enters a room, giving a senior executive the head seat at a conference table, and addressing authority figures by their titles and last names (unless they specifically request otherwise) do not demean anyone. Far from it. Deferring politely reflects well on the person who defers by demonstrating that he values other people for their achievements.
Actions Express Attitude
People who really pay attention to others have little trouble translating what they see and hear into courteous behavior. Courteous people are empathetic -- able to relate emotionally to the feelings of others. They listen closely to what people say. They observe what is going on around them and register what they see. A selfcentered person might say, "I know exactly how you feel" to someone in a traumatic situation and then immediately start describing his own experiences. An empathetic person is more likely to say something like, "I can't know how you feel right now, but I can understand your grief [or anger or sadness]. And if you want to talk about it, I'm here to listen."
This concern for others leads to another characteristic of courteous people: They are flexible -- willing to adjust their own behavior to the needs and feelings of others. This doesn't mean that well-mannered people are pushovers or lack strongly held principles ... Emily Post's Etiquette, 17th Edition
. Copyright © by Peggy Post. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.