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Manners & Etiquette - poshness, snobbery or peaceful coexistance?

Updated: Feb 2

To answer that question I always use my favourite quote of all time - from Li Chi, the Chinese Book of Rites, compiled in the first century B.C., which warns that “the ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of the rules of propriety.”

But how do we define these Rules of Propriety, more commonly known as Manners and Etiquette?

Manners lie at the heart of etiquette. They are about following what Christians call the Golden Rule - treating others the same way you would like to be treated. They are also like a ritual, a series of actions constantly repeated. They pressure people to behave in a predictable manner - but, more importantly, they are performed for the sake of other people, and our relationships with them. They are designed to make social interactions, whether formal or informal, run more smoothly, making it easier and more enjoyable for those present. Their purpose is to please and soothe. When people feel at ease, their barriers are down, their prejudices are kept at bay and the ability to connect and build rapport becomes a lot easier. It allows us to leave fear and awkwardness behind.

You might argue that if a person has a kind heart and a friendly disposition, any faux pas on his part is unimportant because he is a nice person. That is true, up to a point. No matter how kind or generous or how unintentional his actions may be, would you still feel the same if he came for lunch and started blowing his nose on the tablecloth? Would the lack of etiquette cause embarrassment and discomfort to others? Aside from his lack of manners, most importantly there is a lack of consideration for the feelings of others. And for those who do not know him, their opinion of him would be solely determined by his behaviour.

Etiquette, on the other hand, is simply a code of conduct by which a society lives. It’s about learning how to fit in socially, in order to achieve your goals and feel a sense of belonging. Etiquette is not carved in stone, it changes and adapts with the times. In earlier eras, etiquette was a way of eliminating ambiguity and uncertainty. This was especially important in times when a minor insult alone to the wrong person could have fatal consequences.

Nowadays, making faux pas because you are unaware of the ‘rules of the game’, may no longer result in being challenged to a duel but it can kill your social success, or, in a business scenario, of sealing a deal and bolstering your bottom line.

Would you risk being ridiculed or injured by playing a sport without knowing the rules or having the proper gear? How many of us have had that dream where we are on stage and we’ve forgotten our lines?

While certain cultures are not prone to smiling much, and others may seem a little too blunt when giving feedback, they are both acceptable and appropriate behaviours in their respective cultures. For a business to succeed internationally, it is more important than ever to be aware that what is considered polite in one society may be considered rude in another. For example the “okay” gesture – made by connecting the thumb and forefinger in a circle and holding the other fingers straight - is recognised in Britain and North America as a signal that all is well. However in parts of southern Europe and South America it is an offensive gesture.

At the table - where we are more sensitive and observant than normal - we immediately react to the slightest deviation from what we regard as being polite. Eating isn’t particularly an attractive maneouvre anyway. And nowhere are manners, or the lack of them, so visible than at the table. In the West, food always comes to us (an exception perhaps is when we eat spaghetti; no one minds if we slightly tilt in towards the food), and plates always remain on the table. In other cultures, faces tend to move down towards the plate whilst eating or the bowls are brought up to the face. For us to see someone’s head almost in their plate (set on the table) would probably neither soothe nor please us. As I mentioned, there’s no right or wrong, there’s just ‘different’.

During a business negotiation, in some cultures being a good communicator means ‘say what you mean and mean what you say’, but this won’t go down so well if you are nogotiating with a culture that places importance on ‘reading the air’ or communicating between the lines. (More on cross-cultural communication, perhaps later.)

Rules of propriety, politesse, manners, etiquette, whatever you want to call it, have little to do with snobbery or poshness. If you happen to be a castaway on a desert island, then it’s a different story. But what happens when you meet Man Friday? It will be time to consider how your behaviour will impact on the newcomer and both of you will need to arrive at some form of peaceful co-existence.

Let me know your thoughts….

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