Is etiquette elitist?

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Is etiquette elitist?

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Sep 25, 2008, 11:33am

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Sep 25, 2008, 11:48am

I'm very interested in the idea of etiquette, but I've started to wonder lately whether it is a rather insidious form of snobbery. So what if someone doesn't know which fork to use at a dinner table? Or that you're not supposed to wear a certain item of clothing to a certain occasion when the moon is blue? Maybe these traditions, with their clear definition of class, are slipping away because we are trying to reach a long-overdue level of equality. Shouldn't we embrace the idea of 'politeness' and 'civility' instead?

Sep 26, 2008, 11:16pm

I would answer, along with Miss Manners (although not as eloquently), that manners are not in and of themselves "elitist."

Manners tell us we cannot be snobs--we cannot look down on someone because their idea of entertainment is different from ours, or because their education is different.

People may use etiquette to create barriers--to separate those "in the know" from those not. But that is not the fault of manners, nor should it be condoned.

Sometimes it appears that people associate etiquette/manners exclusively with activities such as afternoon tea, or croquet parties. But manners and etiquette are far more wide-ranging: there is an etiquette involved when you attend baseball games, there is an etiquette involved in dive bars and even in gangs--in the last one, a failure to observe the proper etiquette may cost you your life.

Manners and etiquette exist to smooth out social interactions regardless of their social status. In this sense they are no different from politeness and civility.

I'm reminded of an "etiquette" school here in Seattle. A local paper ran a story about it and quoted one student, a young boy, as saying he couldn't care less about manners if all it meant was sitting with girls drinking tea.

Alas, the operator of the school, stressed tea and dances, and waxed faux-(in my opinion) nostagically about the old days when life was beautiful and everyone went to waltz parties. The boy's education was seriously neglected. He should have been taught the etiquette that applied to his daily life in school and the playground.

If I can find the relevant passaged in Miss Manners, I'll quote them. She writes much better than I.

Sep 27, 2008, 1:15pm

No, I think you're giving Miss Manners a run for her money.

In one sense I agree with you, and I certainly believe in "manners" as a form of politeness which oils social interaction. But where do we draw the line between establishing and learning group behaviour, and creating barriers that keep out others?

Sep 28, 2008, 2:38pm

I appreciate the question, and the complexity of the issue, but I believe etiquette is actually one of the great equalizers. Unlike an accent that instantly places the speaker as being from a particular class or region or education that--all too often--costs a tremendous amount of money, or tangible items like cars, houses, or clothing, etiquette is available to all. And with it, one can fit in anywhere, as part of etiquette is knowing the behavior for your current setting (whether it's tea at the Plaza or tailgating) and making those around you feel comfortable. Etiquette doesn't require special classes and the knowledge is easily found in books--what could be more populist than that?

Sep 29, 2008, 2:27am

MysteryWatcher, I've been thinking about your question and I'm not sure how to answer it. I don't see manners/etiquette as erecting barriers--I think people do and that that is human nature. We have our groups and within those groups certain behavioral codes arise--academics have certain manners among themselves just as fishermen on the bass pro circuit do. Some of these behaviors are related to recognizing hierarchy, while others might create a groundwork from which the activities can spring; to lack such a groundwork might actually hinder gatherings as they would have to re-invent the wheel each time. The example that springs to mind is committee meetings and Robert's Rules of Order. I don't see this as an intentional barrier to keep people out, but as a natural outgrowth of a number of people sharing a particular activity.

Ideally, an outsider can learn the manners of any group she would elect to join. As a child whose family moved every two years, I was always learning new ways to behave. I figured "when in Rome..."

Of course, there are examples where groups did use manners to exclude others. I'm reminded of the rumors that after passing the exams to enter All Souls, Oxford, one is taken out to lunch. The real test is at the table as you either succeed to eat a peach with a knife and a fork or you fail. But manners are tools and any tool can be used for nefarious ends.

Perhaps the question comes from two different ideas of what etiquette is. For some, maybe etiquette is a Platonic ideal and one either "knows" it or not (like some Mystery religions where the truth is revealed only to the most advanced members); those who know it are therefore privileged and those who don't are like the unwashed masses. For others, like myself, etiquette is not one ideal way of doing something, but many ideal ways of doing something each depending on where you are and with whom.

The former, however, is very closely related to classism; and if that is what etiquette is then I don't think its possible to draw a line between learning group behavior and erecting barriers to keep people out.

I agree with SelimaCat, etiquette is an equalizer. It can be learned from books (or, more often, from observation) and it is a rare person who cannot switch among three or more of these codes. And more can be learned as they're required. Even French courtiers could be at a loss at Versailles, so they were given cards (etiquettes) with instructions written on them. In modern times we are fortunate to have books to consult and our greater social mobility gives us many opportunities to observe and practice.

So, I think my answer to your question would be for us to be more like those attendants at Versailles passing out etiquettes. When new people join our groups, we should welcome them, show them the ropes and encourage their participation.

Sep 29, 2008, 7:20am

There are some very intriguing answers here, thank you. Perhaps the difference lies between modern and historical etiquette. This thread was prompted by my latest stint in the library, running through centuries-old satirical commentary and diaries, where, I can assure you, reference to breaches of etiquette WERE entrenched in class relations. In the Victorian era, access to this information was not as freely available, and social status could be distinguished by behaviour (for instance - in colonial Australia, where class was notoriously hard to define, it was almost entirely defined by adherence to established class behaviour). Liao - I'm assuming that these French courtiers at Versailles were not peasants?

But, and this is why I posed the question, it may be that this is no longer the case - maybe, as you say, etiquette now acts as an equalizer.

Feb 13, 2009, 8:09pm

This question and this discussion makes me think of something I read - a possibly apocryphal story about how the Queen of England (don't ask me which one...) once observed a guest drinking from the finger bowl and followed suit, so as not to make her guest feel embarrassed by his faux-pas. The author of the book in which this alleged incident was contained defined thought this incident defined "manners," at least as they should ideally be. Perhaps etiquette and manners are different, although we tend to conflate them.

Feb 14, 2009, 6:15pm

I've heard that that was Teddy Roosevelt, but I'm guessing by the number of different versions on google that the story is apocryphal.

Feb 14, 2009, 7:17pm

>9 Jesse_wiedinmyer:, Haha, too true! I think the point still stands though.

Feb 15, 2009, 1:13pm

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