When I was taking cotillion classes as a kid, our teachers would reiterate that the point of etiquette was to be an equalizer. In other words, since we all knew what politenesses were expected of us in social situations, everyone would feel comfortable. However, that’s not the case. Different cultures have different standards of etiquette, and etiquette often becomes a way to quickly indicate who came from the ‘right’ background and who didn’t. While common etiquette united the kids in my social circle, anyone from a different background would have immediately given themselves away as an outsider when they didn’t grab the right fork or know the proper pleasantry to use.
Last week, a friend and I were discussing manners. He and I both grew up in the South learning particular Southern etiquette rules, and now that we both live in New York we wondered if our ‘proper’ behavior actually held us back. “If people mispronounce my name,” he said, “my knee-jerk reaction is that it’s rude to publicly correct someone. But then when I don’t it means they spend all night saying my name the wrong way.” (As someone with an unusual name, I understand this. And for the record, it’s “Lil-Leet.”) At what point is politeness a way of making everyone feel more comfortable, and at what point is it giving people an excuse to get away with bad behavior when other people are too nice to point it out?
One lesson that I learned in etiquette class is that one always introduces the “higher” person first and the “lower” person second. The example my teacher gave was “Professor So-and-So, I’d like you to meet my mother.” Even as a ten year old, I was pretty certain that my mom was more important than Professor So-and-So. Most contemporary etiquette classes will focus instead on introducing people with full names and sometimes job titles, but that’s still a way of reinforcing societal hierarchy. By immediately establishing a person by what they do for a living, there are bound to be inequalities between titles and company names.
As a Southerner outside of the South, I’ve found that perceptions of me vary greatly based on different stereotypes of what Southerners are like. Sometimes, that has actually worked to my advantage. Because people often expect me to be stupid, the bar for “she’s actually smart” is pretty low. Because I’m unfailingly chatty with strangers and finely versed in the art of small talk, I’ve managed to network well and handle myself in awkward social situations. As corny as I thought cotillion was, some of the lessons I’ve learned there still serve me well – making eye contact, laughing at peoples’ jokes to make them feel more comfortable, and always using a person’s first name when addressing them. However, my seemingly hard-wired “be a nice girl and don’t make people feel uncomfortable”-ness occasionally keeps me from sticking up for myself. I once excused myself from a party where someone told anti-Semitic jokes (unaware that I was Jewish) instead of calling the person out on their racist behavior. When a friend asks me honestly what I think of her new outfit, I’ll always find something positive to say, even if I hate it, because I’d rather she feel good about herself.
In its purest form, etiquette is about making other people feel comfortable – even at your own expense. I’ve seen proper, elegant Southern ladies endure 100-degree heat rather than ask someone to please turn on the air conditioning. I’ve told people that their being half an hour late to meet me “isn’t a big deal at all,” even when I’m furious. Etiquette keeps me from saying something rude, but it sometimes also keeps me from being honest about my feelings.
Ultimately, I try to take a middle way when it comes to etiquette. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being polite and treating people respectfully, but I also try to keep in mind which traditions are outdated and which ones still work. I don’t think it matters whether a woman crosses her legs at the knee instead of the ankle, especially since she is more likely to be wearing jeans than a hoop skirt. But I do think it matters that people are nice to each other and give each other the benefit of the doubt. It’s still nice to send a thank you note, but what you write in it should come from your heart and not an etiquette book. And if you have a weird name, other people are usually too polite to ask you how to pronounce it. So just tell them already.