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Etiquette is the code of unwritten expectations (which evolve into written
rules) that governs social behavior. It usually reflects a theory of conduct
that society or tradition has invested heavily in. Like "culture", it is a
word that has gradually grown plural, especially in a multi-ethnic society
with many clashing expectations. Thus, it is now possible to refer to "an
etiquette" or "a culture", realizing that these may not be universal.
Etiquette fundamentally concerns the ways in which people interact with each
other, and show their respect for other people by conforming to the norms of
society. Etiquette instructs us to: greet friends and acquaintances with
warmth and respect, refrain from insults and prying, offer hospitality
equally and generously to our guests, wear clothing suited to the occasion,
contribute to conversations without dominating them, offer a chair or a
helping arm to those who need assistance, eat neatly and quietly, avoid
disturbing others with loud music or unnecessary noise, follow the
established rules or a club or legislature upon becoming a member, arrive
promptly when expected, comfort the bereaved, and respond to invitations promptly.
Violations of etiquette, if severe, can cause hurt feelings,
misunderstandings, or real grief and pain, and can even escalate into
murderous rage. One can reasonably view etiquette as the minimal politics
required to avoid major conflict in polite society, and as such, an
important aspect of applied ethics. An etiquette can be considered to be an
ethical code in itself.
The term etiquette, being of French origin and arising from practices at the
court of Louis XIV, carries a strong whiff of anachronism and it is common
to disparage the entire field by setting it up as a straw man only concerned
with which fork to use. Rules which are such that violations of them do not
harm anybody, are considered by some to be unnecessary restrictions of
freedom. For instance, wearing pajamas to a wedding in a cathedral may be an
expression of the guest's freedom, which may cause the bride and groom to
wonder how the guest in pajamas feels about them and their wedding. Others
feel that a single, basic code shared by all makes life simpler and more
pleasant by removing many chances for misunderstandings.
The term is sometimes used synonymously with manners, though some writers
make the distinction between manners to mean rules which involve justifiable
respect shown to others, and etiquette to mean rules which are based purely
on tradition with little obvious purpose.
Etiquette is dependent on culture; what is excellent etiquette in one
society may shock in another. It is a topic that has occupied writers and
thinkers in all sophisticated societies for millennia, beginning with a
behavior code by Ptahhotep, a vizier in ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom during
the reign of the Fifth Dynasty king Djedkare Isesi (ca 2414-2375). All known
literate civilizations, including ancient Greece and Rome, developed rules
for proper social conduct. Confucius included rules for eating and speaking
along with his more philosophical sayings. Louis XIV himself wrote a book on
court ceremony, and Benjamin Franklin and George Washington wrote codes of
conduct for young gentleman. The immense popularity of advice columns and
books by Miss Manners shows the currency of this topic.
The rise of the Internet has necessitated the adaptation of existing rules
of conduct to create Netiquette, which governs the drafting of email, rules
for participating in online forums, and so on.