When I was a kid, the phrase “proper etiquette” was never too far off the tip of my mother’s, teacher’s, and other authority figure’s tongue. There was just this set of certain rules you had to follow else you’d be considered uncivilized and therefore shunned from society, along with your parents who obviously were at fault for not teaching you better. So I learned the rules, such as to always place my napkin on my lap, never put my elbows on the dining room table, send thank you notes to those I received gifts from within 24 hours, wear white gloves when going out to a restaurant, and never wear a white skirt or slacks before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. There were a couple hundred other rules just like that, as well.
When I became a teenager in the mid-1960’s, at the height of Haight-Ashbury’s heyday, I rebelled against the rigid rules of my parent’s generation (which seemed to have gone back to pre-Edwardian manners). I had a problem with even the concept of anyone making rules of how I should dress or with what hand I could hold my fork as such intrusions on my personal liberty seemed to me to be completely against nature, despite how trivial those particular rules were. The fact that no actual harm to anyone or anything would occur if such rules were not followed – other than harm inflicted by those intent on punishing such “wrong” behavior – struck me as grossly unjust and a symptom of an unimaginative society trying to place everyone into their little labeled boxes so they (society) wouldn’t have to think too hard or have to actually examine the logic of their beliefs. I was hardly alone in that rebellion as even a quick skim through any news archives around the world will attest to.
Every generation since the time of Plato, if not before, has recognized that teenagers, in general, feel their parent’s generation are “old fashioned” and overly strict and that they (the younger ones) are far more intelligent. Yet it has been relatively rare for the specific focus of such rebellion to outlast not only the teen years but to continue on through subsequent generations as well. I’ve no formal education in this area, but I would venture a guess that the reason for this rarity is simply due to the fact that on the road to maturity, we experience the natural consequences of what happens when we or others do not follow certain rules of civility, until it finally leads to an “Aha!” moment – and then the cycle begins again with us as the old-fashioned parents instead.
The rebellion against society that came to the forefront in the 1960’s was far more complicated that this “usual” type of teenage angst and rejection of tradition though, as it included far larger issues such as racial and gender equality, isolationism, responsibility for our neighbors, and even the very existence of God. In reality, those issues had actually been in the making since the 1840’s when Darwin and the Industrial Age gave rise and opportunity to ponder such existential questions. Thereafter, it was only due to the advances in communications technology (i.e. television, transatlantic telephones, etc.) that permitted the questions and debates in response to them, to be shared with the masses. And most spectacularly of all was that, for the first time in history, the masses were largely literate and educated enough to join in the conversation, which in turn forced serious consideration and decisions upon our elders and our governments.
Fifty years later, we’ve come a long way but as is typical for humans, it’s been a journey of three steps forward and two steps back. So we’ve still got a long, long way to go in figuring out which rules of society go to the heart of what it takes for individuals to live and work peacefully and productively together and which rules only serve to divide us. For isn’t that the weight we should be measuring such rules by?
With that standard in mind, On my own personal journey to maturity, I re-evaluated each of those rules of etiquette embodied in books by the likes of Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, and Letitia Baldridge. In raising my own child, I threw out the white gloves and rules about what color you could wear at what time of year and such but I did return to the “rules” about writing Thank You Notes and other such niceties as I came to understand the importance of taking the time to let people know you appreciate their acts of kindness and generosity. And like many of my generation, I’ve tried to take this concept even further by ensuring I tell people that I simply appreciate them – for who they are – and their presence in my life. For it is through these small but sincere gestures that we all have the power to help another feel good and to make the world a little more pleasant to live in. It is an act which tends to infect the actor, the receiver and even those who merely witnessed its’ occurrence. Now that’s an epidemic I’d love to spread!
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