He was mumbling unhappily as he hiked few yards behind my family on a trail to the falls at Yosemite National Park. His wife, a few feet behind him was doing her best to encourage him.
Then he stepped in a puddle. His shoes got wet and he released a slurry of words I did not yet understand at eleven years old. He was mad at himself for stepping into the puddle. He was mad at the puddle for being there. His wife looked at the puddle and sweetly placed her dry feet into the oozing, wet mud.
“Oh that is an easy puddle to miss.” She said. “See I stepped into it too.”
His attitude cooled slightly, and as our family slowed they passed on by us up the hill…both with wet feet.
My mother often reminded us of that story and noted the kindness of that cranky man’s wife in her attempt to cool his nerves.
“Then there was the time that Mrs. Grover Cleveland attempted to engage a tongue-tied guest in conversation by seizing on the nearest thing at hand, an antique cup of the thinnest china. ‘
We’re so very pleased to have these; they’re quite rare and we’re using them for the first time today,’ she is supposed to have said.
‘Really?’ asked the distraught guest, picking up his cup and nervously crushing it in his hand.
‘Oh don’t worry about it,’ said the hostess., ‘They’re terribly fragile–see?’ She smashed hers. (Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior p. 7)
As a teenager, I checked out etiquette books at the library and read them repeatedly. I found etiquette fascinating. In college, I took several classes on etiquette and manners including meal etiquette and business etiquette. They were some of my favorite classes.
Etiquette is a culture’s code on what is considered polite or rude. What is rude and what is polite is always changing as culture changes. The essence of etiquette is can be summed up as knowing how to treat others in your culture with love, respect, and dignity. The better etiquette a person has, the better human he or she is.
I will note, that one does not have to make a life-study of etiquette to have superb manners. What makes good etiquette is simply thoughtful kindness. Selfish people are incapable of good manners, and may use politeness only as a means to an end, not as a standard of kindness.
For some reason, many in our culture equivalate etiquette with fancy, rich, snobby people. This conception of etiquette is completely mistaken. Good etiquette is not stiff. It is certainly never snobby. And it is just as essential for the poor as for the wealthy.
Etiquette is the epidemy of selflessness. We might know that we are to live selflessly, but for those who do not automatically know how to be kind in every situation, etiquette provides us with various guidelines of what selflessness looks like.
Selflessness keeps its appointments and does not keep other’s waiting. Selflessness chews with it’s mouth shut. Selflessness says “please” and “thank-you.” Selflessness does not gossip. Selflessness does not dominate a conversation. Selflessness does not overstay its welcome. Selflessness does not talk with a mouth full of food. Selflessness does not embarrass others. Selflessness is dependable, kind, and gentle. Selflessness steps in muddy puddles and breaks fine china.
Etiquette is invaluable to our humanity. During the Holocausts, Jews were animalized. They were not seen as human, but as animals and were treated as such by being herded, beaten, worked, and killed. Jewish authors have often stated how much they missed culture. In the movie “The Pianist” we see a glimpse of the animalized Jews hungering to feel human again as they listened to music.
Etiquette, (or should I say, selflessness) gives humanity its culture and is key to setting us apart us from all the other creatures God made.
The Japanese culture is a culture that is very respectful of other humans. The Japanese heritage runs deep into respect and honor, both the giving of honor and the keeping of honor. I am not familiar with all world cultures, but Japan certainly values good manners, and as a result, all humans in Japan are valued.
In Japan abortion regulations are very strict. Instead of being disregarded with age, as is common in American culture, the elderly become more and more honored with age. Education and culture are deeply valued. Meals are prepared and eaten with thought. Time with people is not hurried. People are important in the Japanese culture. Where etiquette is valued, people are valued. And where people are valued, good etiquette is also valued.
The careless spirit of our American culture does sadden me a bit. Not so much that we as a whole undervalue good manners, but that the root of our undervalue of courtesy is due to a lack of value and respect for each other.
People are not worth our time. Time with our family, is not more valuable that work, school and soccer schedules. Our busy lives proceed being on time and keeping our appointments. People and events are not worth our dressing appropriately. Responding to phone-calls, texts, and e-mails must fit into our busy timeline. Thank you notes…what are they? I could truly rant all day on the pains of poor etiquette in American culture.
But the greatest pain is that we consider poor etiquette acceptable, normal and even admirable. A mockery is made of our humanity as we gradually allow me, myself, and I to be the only thing that matters.
“For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,” 2 Timothy 3:1-3