Thursday, August 5, 2010

Who Said So?! - The Origins of Etiquette

“So where did all these rules for good manners and proper etiquette originate?” That was a question recently asked of me by the father of a close friend of mine. And it is a good question. After all, when I was a young boy and asked the “Why?” question that all young children ask, the answer was usually “because I said so!” But as we grow up, we actually tend to ask questions because we really want to know the answer. Good manners and protocol are the cornerstones of all civilized societies and date back as recorded codes to the ancient Egyptians, around 2000 B.C. The text known as the Prisse Papyrus is still preserved in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. It is entitled The Instructions of Ptahhotep. Years later, as we evolved as a society and left the warring nomadic life behind, it became necessary and in fact desirable to establish official public documents whereby various heads of state or their ministers could communicate. Thus protocol was solidified and has come to encompass diplomacy, ceremony and etiquette.

“Diplomacy is nothing but a lot of hot air,” said a companion to French Statesman George Clemenceau as they rode to a peace conference. “All etiquette is hot air,” said Clemenceau. “But that is what is in our automobile tires; notice how it eases the bumps.” And so it is in government, business and social circles today. An elaborate system of the
ways we communicate with one another shows that we have respect for our fellow man, and as well it reflects on our own self esteem. A lack of it is known in business circles as the silent killer. No one will point out your foibles; they just won’t want to do business with you. My friend’s father put forth the argument that acceptable behavior (in his mind synonymous with proper etiquette) was what the majority of people in society do by their own choice. As society’s habits change, then so do rules governing proper social behavior. To some extent this point of view has merit. However, for example, as mentioned in a previous column, just because most of us use computers and the internet to communicate, that does not mean hand written thank you notes will go out of style. There is always a balance of old and new. No where is this more evident than in fashion. Both men’s and women’s fashion come and go and then often times certain elements of a generation past, come back to the forefront.

In business, social, intergovernmental and diplomatic circles, these rules of behavior are slow to change. Granted, finger bowls may not be used at all White House dinners as they were in the past, but few other codes of behavior have changed. This flexible permanence gives stability to an unstable world.

Coincidental with my column of thank you’s was the insightful article by Kate Wallace on Margaret Vissar’s new book, “The Gift of Thanks”. However there is a stark contrast between my weekend column and this best selling author. In her new book by the same title, Ms. Visser delves into the origins and real meaning behind gratitude, from the point of view of an anthropologist. She debunks the theory that gratitude is in our genetic makeup and that it in fact needs to be taught. She goes back to primitive man and his social behavior. I can hardly wait to read this new book. Along with her earlier best sellers she really shows that the complex set of rules by which we as a society live, are based on practical measures and are based on common sense and are rooted well into the past.

The history and origins of etiquette are French. Etiquette used to mean “keep off the grass”. Dorothea Johnson explains, as founder of the Protocol School of Washington, “When Louis XIV’s gardener at Versailles discovered that the aristocrats were trampling through his gardens, he put up signs, or ‘etiquets’, to warn them off. But dukes and duchesses walked right past the signs anyway. Finally, the King himself had a decree that no one was to go beyond the bounds of the ‘etiquets’. The meaning of etiquette later was expanded to include the ticket to court functions that listed the rules on where to stand and what to do. Like language, etiquette evolves, but in a sense it still means “keep off the grass”. If we stay within the flexible bounds of etiquette, we will
give relationships a chance to grow; we will give ourselves a chance to grow; and we will be able to present ourselves with confidence and authority in all areas of our professional and personal life.”


  1. Really enjoyed reading this. Etiquette indeed "smooths the bumps".
    Now I have another book to put on my order list.

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  3. Jay, thank you for sharing Dorothea Johnson's statement, especially that last bit: "If we stay within the flexible bounds of etiquette, we will give relationships a chance to grow; we will give ourselves a chance to grow; and we will be able to present ourselves with confidence and authority in all areas of our professional and personal life.”

    This is so profound, true, accurate, & beautifully sincere, that I wept when I read it. It moved me deeply.

    Truly, when I have, in the past, experienced situations in which others simply could not bridle themselves to etiquette's rein, I felt keenly that opportunities were lost & that made me sad. I also felt a deepening gratitude for the existence of etiquette; it's very presence in our world gives me continual hope that we can all enjoy one another in complete peace someday on Earth.

    Blessings to you for sharing this lovely, concise history of etiquette!

    Warm regards...Ceci

  4. Thank you for your thoughts and kind words, Ceci. I cannot stress enough the need for compassion, both for those in our lives, but most importantly for ourselves! Blessings.