When I ask kids (and adults) what they think etiquette is, they usually rattle off a list of rules for good behavior that they think are static, old-fashioned, and out of date. Since they think these rules are out of date, our conversation might come to a quick end if I weren’t able to convince them that the definition of proper etiquette changes with the times. Etiquette is not just picky details like which spoon to use to consume soup at dinner, or why there are an endless number of forks on the dinner table. I sometimes find that interchanging the term good manners for “etiquette” can reopen the door to meaningful conversation.
One of my favorite quotes regarding etiquette and good manners is from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who said “Good manners will open doors that the best education cannot.” What could this Yale-educated Supreme Court Justice possibly mean by that? I believe Justice Thomas is telling us that while certain rules may be out of date, good behavior and manners are never out of style. And, possibly, that the person exhibiting extraordinary manners may leave a more lasting impression than the most educated mind in the world. Therefore, the code that underlies good manners is worth integrating into our personal behavior.
As I said, good manners evolve to match the times. Without a code for good behavior, we would likely show far too much impatience and disrespect for each other. Insults and intolerance of other people’s opinions would become more and more common, eventually leading to a society where dishonesty, cheating, and other regrettable incidents become all too common.
So what are the principles of this code that will help us exercise proper etiquette and good manners? While the specifics may be ever-adapting, the core values at the center of the code are Kindness, Integrity, and Respect. At its best, etiquette helps us treat people with the consideration that we would like to be treated. There will always be rules concerning weddings, funerals, business protocol, how to behave on the internet, and many other formal and informalsituations we will encounter in life. However, if we stay focused on the core values underlying etiquette—Kindness, Integrity, and Respect—we will find that most of the time we already know what etiquette dictates, and we will be able to do the right thing.
Aside from the many doors that Justice Thomas indicates will be open to you for your practice of good manners, here are some more practical benefits:
- Etiquette gives you a sense of confidence. Knowing what is expected of you in certain situations and knowing you have the necessary skills will not only showcase your own good manners. It will also help put others at ease.
- Knowing proper manners can help you help your friends and protect them from embarrassment.It is always poor form to point out somebody else’s poor manners, but having conversations with your friends over what good behavior in a formal circumstance entails may help protect them from embarrassment.
- Etiquette helps make communication easier and clearer. Having good manners enables communication by breaking down barriers, not erecting them.
- At work, you will be perceived as more competent, more professional, and more intelligent if you are familiar with the proper code of conduct for the workplace. This is especially true if your industry has its own set of norms.
- Good manners make good first impressions. The first five to seven seconds after you meet someone are crucial. Your first impression lingers in the other person’s mind long after you are gone. If you have good manners, that first impression will be a positive one.
If kindness, integrity, and respect for others are the measuring stick by which you judge your own behavior, you will be well on your way to understanding the rules of etiquette instinctively. You will be sought out by your peers for your professionalism, integrity, and consideration of others.