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What Is Etiquette? Origins, Misconceptions, and Modern Forms

Seabastian writes about fashion and beautiful occasions, including weddings.

Learn where the notion of etiquette came from and how we use it today.

Learn where the notion of etiquette came from and how we use it today.

Where Did Etiquette Come From?

To many people, etiquette is nothing more than the art of trying to catch someone using the incorrect fork at a dinner party. They are mistaken, however, as etiquette has served as a code of social behavior for centuries, and a very useful one, at that. Although few people think of etiquette at any time except on the occasion of their wedding, we all practice it every day, often as a matter of routine.

This is a look at the origins of etiquette as we know it, misconceptions, and modern forms for everyday life, as well as special events such as weddings.

Even the Ancients Found Value in Etiquette

Would you be surprised to learn that philosophers have been writing about social behavior and codes of appropriate conduct for as long as there have been philosophers?

They may not have referred to it as “etiquette”, but when Ptahhotep wrote his code for behavior two thousand years before Christ or when the Chinese sage Confucius came up his rules for everyday activities like eating and speaking, they were doing the same thing that Emily Post did when she published her groundbreaking guidebook Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage in 1922.

They were taking the standards of the day and clearly defining them for general use. In fact, when properly used, the purpose of etiquette is to make our lives simpler, as well as more pleasant.

Emily Post brought etiquette to the masses.

Emily Post brought etiquette to the masses.

A firm handshake makes a good first impression on business colleagues.

A firm handshake makes a good first impression on business colleagues.

Social Conventions Make Life Easier

Imagine if every time that you saw a friend on the street or met up with a business acquaintance, you had to think of a new way to greet him. Then imagine that the other person had to try to decipher the meaning in your actions. Every casual social interaction becomes a challenge to be carefully navigated, rather than something which can be handled with ease. That is what the world would be like without etiquette.

In our society, we know that when business people meet, the professional greeting is a handshake. If you did not know that, you would be at a tremendous disadvantage and might choose an alternate greeting, such as a hug and a kiss, which would be deemed inappropriate. This is why having a clear protocol is so helpful.

Of course, much of what we take for granted in our society is culture-specific. In Japan, a bow at the waist is the customary polite greeting, rather than a handshake, and the deeper the bow, the greater the respect shown.

Formal and elaborate manners were required for life in the Royal Court.

Formal and elaborate manners were required for life in the Royal Court.

Formal Etiquette Began With Royal Courts

Etiquette as we think of it was established in the Versailles court of French King Louis XIV. There was a large circle of courtiers, ladies and gentlemen whose chief occupation was hanging around the court, attending balls and ballets, dining, and looking fabulous.

Over time, very specific rules of behavior were developed, which in large part may have evolved from the fact that the ladies and gentlemen of the court had no specific occupations, other than being courtiers. The codes of conduct covered virtually every social nicety, from posture to dining and especially, dancing. The King's rigid rules were also a form of control which he held over the courtiers: one breach of etiquette, and the offending person would be dropped from the inner circle instantly.

The elaborate rituals and elegant manners of the French court were soon adopted by the other Royal courts of Europe. While the upper classes developed a vast system of etiquette covering virtually every type of social interaction, commoners were not without an etiquette system of their own, even if they may not have thought of it as such. For example, the practice of shaking right hands as a form of greeting dates back to the Middle Ages, when the right hand was extended to show that it held no weapon.

The custom of a man helping a woman from a car, which has largely been lost today, also originated for practical reasons; when ladies wore long dresses, it was difficult for them to gracefully step from a carriage without a helping hand. Many chivalrous practices developed to serve the tandem purposes of showing respect for others and to solve practical everyday issues.

The Victorians loved silver utensils; with such a confusing array of forks it is no wonder they gave table manners a bad reputation!

The Victorians loved silver utensils; with such a confusing array of forks it is no wonder they gave table manners a bad reputation!

Victorian Etiquette: Beyond Forks

The Victorian Era was one of the heydays of etiquette, with a set of formalized rules governing all facets of life. There was a code of behavior which was carefully observed by ladies and gentlemen. While the list of rules was long, they were not necessarily onerous to follow.

Many of the social conventions followed by people of “good breeding” involved demonstrating respect for elders and the “fairer sex”. Gentlemen were expected to open doors for ladies, walk on the street side of the sidewalk (to shield his female companion from being splashed by passing carriages), and to tip their hats to passing acquaintances on the street.

There were also numerous fine points about the interactions between men and women. For instance, a gentleman could only give a lady certain gifts, such as candy, flowers, or books. Certainly, the restrained Victorians found ways to express their love in subtle ways; the “secret language of flowers” was one method for a proper young man or woman to convey her feelings for another.

Only after receiving a gift from him could the woman then reciprocate; inexpensive, handmade gifts were the ones deemed respectable. This notion held on for a long time. An etiquette book from the 1950s offered very similar advice, and cautioned that a woman should never accept a present from a suitor which smacked of support, such as cash, jewels, or other gifts which might appear to make her a “kept” woman or mistress.

Dining Utensils in Victorian Times

If there is one thing for which Victorian etiquette is known, it is the baffling array of utensils which were used for fine dining. This is probably where etiquette earned its reputation as nothing more than a system designed to confound innocent dinner guests by testing them on their knowledge of forks. Without question, the ladies of that era delighted in having the perfect utensil for every possible type of food to be served at table, which resulted in silver collections full of specialty cutlery like berry forks and pickle forks.

However, a lady or gentleman who was educated in basic table manners would have known that there is no mystery to selecting the correct fork; one only had to work from the outside in towards the plate for each course. Not only is that same simple fact still true today, modern etiquette states that no more than three forks should be in the place setting at any one time. In other words, the fork dilemma is far overstated, and while perhaps amusing, is not a valid indictment of the art of etiquette and gracious living.

Since the days of Emily Post, however, it has actually been considered very poor manners to try to catch others in minor etiquette infractions. The polite person would never comment on another's social snafu, and should try to cover the gaffe, if at all possible. The classic example is the hostess whose uninformed guest drinks the lemon infused water from a finger bowl. She does not scorn or draw attention to the innocent mistake, but instead proceeds to sip the contents of her own finger bowl to put her guest at ease. Now that is good manners!

Proper place setting.

Proper place setting.

Changing Times Bring Changes to Etiquette

Through the 1950s, etiquette was still very much a part of everyday society. There were clear conventions regarding everything from the appropriate way to thank your hostess for a dinner party (send flowers in advance or the next day rather than bringing them to dinner, which forces your hostess to drop everything to find a vase for them), to acceptable behavior during courtship (conservative and restrained = respectable), and social calls.

There was country day attire (think tweed) and city day attire. And of course, a lady's shoes matched her bag and white footwear was never seen after Labor Day, unless the wearer was an infant, a nurse, or a bride.

Of course, social customs are as much a matter of time as place, so things which would have been completely acceptable in the 1950s are now considered to be in poor taste. A prime example would be that smoking was the norm at cocktail parties (indeed, it was the non-smokers who would have been expected to leave the room), whereas today, very few hosts feel the need to keep ashtrays and boxes of cigarettes on hand to be hospitable.

For those who assume that etiquette is hopelessly outdated, take note: manners and etiquette are actually quite fluid and evolve along with the social norms of the day. The massive social upheaval of the 1960s put an end to the strict etiquette of the previous generations. No longer was it exciting to be a grown up, and youth no longer aspired to become elegant ladies or debonair gentlemen when they grew up. In fact, no one particularly wanted to grow up at all, and certainly many of the social niceties were abandoned.

Once the so-called sexual revolution came about, old notions about what was required for a young lady to maintain her pure reputation were pretty much moot. However, just as old rules loosened, new situations created a need for new sets of manners, which etiquette provided.

As more women entered the workforce in the 1970s, new etiquette regulating workplace behavior between the sexes became necessary. Divorce became more common, so new forms of address had to be codified (does the divorced woman prefer to be called “Mrs.” or “Ms.”? Probably either, as long as she is not called by the scandal-implying term “divorcee”.)

Debutantes practice the low curtsy called the "Texas Dip" before their debut at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Debutantes practice the low curtsy called the "Texas Dip" before their debut at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Traditional Etiquette Thrives in Some Circles

Not all corners of society have abandoned the traditional form of manners, and nowhere is this more evident than in the upper tiers of society, where certain customs seem to be set in stone, no matter how much the world around changes. In some communities, formal etiquette classes are still an important part of a young lady or gentleman's upbringing and engraved stationery is still used.

Perhaps the best example of this is the debutantes who make their entrance to society each season. This is a very old tradition, which was designed to introduce eligible young ladies from “good” families to society and to put people on notice that they are now old enough to accept serious suitors. These days, few 18-year-olds are sheltered flowers awaiting to meet men for the first time anymore than they are interested in finding a husband within a year or two.

Nonetheless, many of the customs persist, including the virginal long white dresses, the eligible young men serving as escorts, and even the formal curtsy which each debutante makes upon being presented to society at her cotillion. The debutantes might be more worldly than their counterparts in the first half of the 20th Century, but there are still more things which are the same about modern debutantes than are different, as the etiquette has changed very little.

Etiquette becomes very important when planning a wedding.

Etiquette becomes very important when planning a wedding.

Emily Post and Miss Manners Make Sure Brides Get it Right

For most people today, the only time they pick up a book about etiquette is when they begin planning a wedding. Yet etiquette books have been bestsellers for generations, and still are today. In the 1920s, a wealthy woman named Emily Post made it her mission to simplify proper etiquette and to put it in print in an easy-to-read guide. Her 1922 book Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage was the first of many popular tomes on manners and etiquette.

The name “Emily Post” is now synonymous with etiquette, and in fact has spawned a small industry dedicated to manners called the Emily Post Institute. Post is certainly the doyenne of social graces, but not the only famous author on the subject.

Since her days in the diplomatic service in the late 1940s, Letitia Baldrige has been writing about manners and protocol. Amy Vanderbilt first published her bestseller “Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette” in 1952. In 1978, “Miss Manners” (author Judith Martin) debuted her syndicated newspaper column on the subject of etiquette. Over ten books have followed, all written in her signature witty style.

There are several indispensable books specifically on the subject of wedding etiquette. Chief among them are Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette, Miss Manners on Weddings, and Crane's Wedding Blue Book, which is a comprehensive guide to wedding invitation wording and protocol for every conceivable scenario. Modern wedding etiquette is fascinating, as it is very much the same as it has been for generations, yet does change and evolve with the times.

Compare a wedding invitation today with one from fifty years ago, and they will be identical. The wording is formalized, each phrase means something specific, and most brides follow conventions to the letter. Fashions in wedding gowns change from year to year, but most brides still wear the long white gown, a bridal veil, and pearl wedding jewelry.

Of course, some things have changed, even in the traditional circle of wedding manners. It used to be that no woman would enter a church without her head covered. While most brides still wear veils, wedding guests wearing hats are now few and far between, when at one time it would have been very undignified for a lady to appear at a marriage ceremony hatless. Not all customs change, though, and it is still in poor taste for a man to wear a hat indoors.

One of the most dramatic changes in recent years has been the dropping of the abolition on wearing black to a wedding. This is to some extent regional; wearing a black dress to a New York wedding is virtually a given, whereas it might be the cause of some disapproving looks in a conservative small town in the South.

Children attend etiquette seminars to brush up on their social skills.

Children attend etiquette seminars to brush up on their social skills.

Good Manners Are Always Relevant

Even for those who believe that they lead modern, casual lives free of etiquette, they actually rely much more heavily on societal conventions than they realize. As Miss Manners sagely pointed out:

"You can deny all you want that there is etiquette, and a lot of people do in everyday life. But if you behave in a way that offends the people you're trying to deal with, they will stop dealing with you...There are plenty of people who say, 'We don't care about etiquette, but we can't stand the way so-and-so behaves, and we don't want him around!' Etiquette doesn't have the great sanctions that the law has. But the main sanction we do have is in not dealing with these people and isolating them because their behavior is unbearable."

Contemporary life may not require an advanced degree in posture or correct fork usage, but there are new forms of mannerly behavior which have emerged in response to new facets of our lives. Look at the development of “netiquette”, which refers to polite behavior online. If you know that typing an email in all capital letters is considered to be screaming, then you are familiar with Internet etiquette.

Or consider the millions of yoga practitioners in the United States, most of whom are fully aware that it is considered disrespectful to talk throughout a yoga class, inconsiderate to wear a strongly scented perfume, and bad karma to interrupt the class by arriving late or sneaking out during the final savasana. That is etiquette. It might not involve white gloves, silver forks, or engraved stationery, but is is etiquette, all the same.

As defined by Wikipedia, etiquette is a “code of behavior that delineates expectations for social behavior according to contemporary conventional norms within a society, social class, or groups”. In other words, day in and day out, we all practice etiquette. The beauty of it is that when good manners and polite behavior are ingrained into a society, it makes routine social interactions, as well as special occasions, more pleasant and agreeable for everyone.