George Washington is probably one of the most respected men in American history. While I am sure there are the usual slanderers who always find some blemish in our heroes’ pasts, people from all walks of life and political spectrums appreciate Washington. One thing that he is renowned for was his ability to know how to conduct himself properly in every situation. He was a man of proper etiquette. Before the age of 16, he had translated a French book of etiquette into English and carried it with him everywhere. These etiquette rules can be found at: http://www.history.org/almanack/life/manners/rules2.cfm
How would you define ‘etiquette’? Men opening doors for ladies? Or a young person giving up their seat for an older person? Or a man offering to carry the groceries for a mom busy with her small children? These are definitely attributes of proper etiquette, but it is not limited to them. I have been pondering the rules of etiquette for our American society so that I can identify them for my students, and I am coming to the grave realization that our society doesn’t really have rules of etiquette! And the few that could be considered are so rarely used they hardly qualify as rules.
For example, when you join a room with a number of people in it, do you greet each one when you arrive and bid farewell to each one when you leave? They do in Europe. “Well,” you might say, “that’s hard to do when there’s a large group of people. It might not even be possible.” OK, then. Are children taught to look people in the eye and greet them whenever they see someone for the first time that day? Recently I had to teach my students that it is a sign of respect to acknowledge their teacher if they were to see her in public.
Here’s another one: texting. Ah, yes! The main method of communication for Generation Text (those born in 1993 and after). Is it polite to text when you are in a face-to-face conversation with someone else? Or what if you’re at a small social gathering, even driving with someone, should you be sending and answering texts that are unrelated to the other person(s) you are with? “But what if everyone’s doing it?” you might ask. Perhaps you can then set the example and suggest putting the phones away for a while in order to really focus on those who are physically present, unless you can all join in on each other’s phone conversations.
Oh yes! Let’s talk about the rule of follow-through. How many times has someone told you they were going to do something with you and never showed up. Or they said they would help out with a project or function and you never heard from them again. Maybe they had a great idea that you supported, and then you ended up being the one doing it because they started, you helped, and they never finished it. George Washington’s rules of etiquette would probably admonish us to be slow to commit unless we’re certain we can follow through; and then if something significant prevented us from fulfilling our obligation, we should be sure to inform the other parties involved, as soon as possible.
Some of you may be rolling your eyes and thinking, “That’s so old-fashioned! No one talks about etiquette anymore.” Or you might be saying, “Why be so uptight? Everyone should feel free to say and do what they want. Ainokea. I do what I like and I don’t want anyone telling me what to do.” Perhaps you simply feel that you’re too busy to remember all those things they did in the 1800’s. These excuses have taken etiquette hostage. Missing etiquette eventually leads to a lawless society. Each of rule of etiquette is grounded in a sense of respect for oneself and others. They remind us that we are not islands unto ourselves; rather, we cannot neglect our responsibilities or our duties. If we don’t defend our values, who will?
Taken Hostage: Proper Etiquette. Wanted: Proof of Life.