Etiquette is one of those crazy things, like MLA formatting and state tax laws, that change constantly. Actions considered rude last year may be acceptable today. Many of the traditional “rules of engagement” no longer even apply.
Technology just makes this more complicated. What exactly are the rule about cell-phones, texting, and Blackberries? Furthermore, what does etiquette look like in the realm of the Internet? What is rude behavior on Facebook? What does a polite e-mail look like?
Some thoughtful and brilliant unknown person pointed out that etiquette is the outward action of loving our neighbors. When I feel the tendency to simply write off all attempts to observe etiquette and begin to consider manners as a sort of relative set of rules that no longer apply, this concept reminds me of the underlying heart of etiquette. Loving our neighbors.
It’s commonly considered rude to chew with your mouth open. But this isn’t some random rule that George Washington’s housekeeper invented. It’s rude to chew with your mouth open because your behavior will prevent those around you from enjoying your meal.
It’s considered rude to call late at night or early in the morning. This isn’t some hard and fast “stop at the stop sign” rule. The tradition is in place because it’s inconsiderate to simply assume everyone else keeps the same hours that you do.
It’s considered polite to show up at a formal party with a hostess gift. This isn’t your “ticket in.” It’s simply a way of expressing gratitude to those who went through the effort to prepare the food and host the gathering.
Loving my neighbor might mean that, while it’s acceptable to talk on my phone in a crowded, loud area, I may need to end the conversation when I walk into the quiet library.
Loving my neighbor involves being thoughtful of those around me and aware of my surroundings. Behavior acceptable with one group of people might not be acceptable in another context.
I still want to know the answers. I’d feel more comfortable knowing when it’s not rude to answer my phone in public. But reminding myself that the heart of etiquette is outwardly showing love to those around me helps me make judgments about polite behavior.