Etiquette as a Societal Value

Several books have been introduced recently, bewailing the general decline of good manners in both North American and European societies. The complaint seems to be that while previous generations had no difficulty knowing what was right and proper in their dealings with others, modern generations have thrown away that sense of propriety, and in many cases they adopt an approach to the world that can only be described as rude. No doubt, there is more than an element of truth to this observation, but while comparisons between our social habits and those of another era can appear to be in stark contrast, the realities of modern times must also be taken into account.

The strict rules of etiquette that were quite normal to people in Victorian times, and even much later than that, appear to us as unnecessarily awkward and cumbersome. This is perhaps particularly true of the code of behavior expected of men in their dealings with women. Every man of good breeding knew that he should stand as a woman entered the room, and he would not hesitate to raise his hat as a woman passed him in the street. Social conventions like allowing a woman to pass through a door first, serving her first in a restaurant, or relinquishing one's seat for her on public transport, though considered basic good manners in other times, are no longer the norm for many people. This is deplorable to those who consider social etiquette to be one of the foundations of civility, but for others it is simply a sign of social maturity in modern times.

Other aspects of traditional social etiquette were meant to convey respect for one's fellow citizens. Even two generations ago, the use of first names, for example, was considered a familiarity reserved for family and close friends. Most people would have considered it the height of impropriety to address a stranger by his or her first name, and no professional such as a doctor or bank manager would use first names in dealing with clients. A respectful use of appropriate titles would have been considered the norm.

Changes to traditional rules of etiquette do not necessarily mean that people are less respectful of each other today, or that they are inclined to be ruder than people of previous generations. Society has changed, and so have the rules. The emancipation of women and a perceived equality of the sexes has been one of the most fundamental aspects of social change over the past century. If men and women are viewed as equal, then there seems to be no longer any purpose to the exaggerated deference towards women that was traditionally shown. Also, the modern world has adopted a more casual approach to life. Many more people are well educated, and a stiff formality is no longer seen as necessary or appropriate.

There is a marked difference, however, between being casual and being rude. Basic respect of each other is still required. People are still expected to wait in line, to be mindful of their fellow citizens, and to be polite. The world may have changed, quite drastically in some ways, but most of us will agree that if we wish to remain among the civil and the civilized, the least that is expected of us is that we will observe the basic rules of common courtesy in our everyday dealings with others.

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