Etiquette and Purpose

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

In a recent column, Miss Manners does a pretty good job of correcting the common misconception of etiquette as a confusing mess of arbitrary rules that have little to do with daily life. At one point in a reply to a question, she almost explicitly lays out the purpose of etiquette as a means of managing conflict -- be it by preventing it from unnecessarily escalating or by avoiding it altogether when it is unnecessary.

What I liked best about her particular response, though, was her explicitness in tying one's purpose to one's response to rudeness.

After first asking, "Does the form of confrontation serve the purpose? Will it change bad behavior?" she later elaborates:

The way non-rational animals interact is, frankly, for the birds. (Image by Chris Sabor, via Unsplash, license.)
In some cases -- as, for example, when citizens strive for a systemic change -- it takes perseverance and fortitude. In others -- such as dealing with one's bigoted old uncle -- the wiser course may be to refrain from prodding him by keeping off the offensive subjects. And scolding strangers in the street just makes them act worse.

In none of these situations does rudeness lead to success. That is why official arenas handling conflict -- courts, legislatures, sports -- have strict etiquette rules so that both sides are supposed to restrain from unproductive antagonisms.

Protesters win adherents by cultivating empathy, not by attacking potential supporters. Individuals are not open to instruction from people who do not show them some basic respect.

Typically, when Miss Manners advises avoiding confrontation, it is in situations where there is nothing to be gained -- and possibly much to lose... [bold added]
She doesn't take the last step of stating that manners are a matter of rational self-interest, but she comes very close.

But it is clear that etiquette, far from a set of rules meant to please others, is a practical value for living a good life.

-- CAV

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