This is the single most important thing we hope you read about etiquette.
It’s that important. It’s the single most important thing to all of us who work here. And it was hugely important to Emily Post.
To us, etiquette—a word on so many of our books!—is made up of two parts. There are manners; lots of them, in fact. Books and webpages full of them! “Please” and “thank you,” holding doors, chewing with our mouths closed, dressing appropriately, shaking hands—these are all manners. They are important because they give us confidence, allow our focus to be on the substance of our interactions, and they tell us what to do and what to expect others to do in return. Plus, they’re nice.
But etiquette also expresses something more, something we call “the principles of etiquette.” Those are consideration, respect, and honesty. These principles are the three qualities that stand behind all the manners we have. They are timeless and cross cultural boundaries, unlike manners, which can change over time and differ around the world.
Take for example the handshake, a classic Western greeting. The handshake is the manner—in ancient Rome, people grasped forearms to greet one another; in Asia, many people bow when meeting. Those are all examples of manners. But the idea that we shake hands, grasp forearms, or bow to show respect and welcome another person is both universal and timeless. That’s the principle at work. Simply put, manners are often the how, and principles are the why.
Respect can be a feeling, and it can be demonstrated in our actions and words. To us, respecting other people means recognizing and acknowledging their worth and value as human beings, regardless of their background, race, or creed. It’s demonstrated in all our day-to-day relations—refraining from demeaning others for their ideas and opinions, refusing to laugh at racist or sexist jokes, putting prejudices aside, and staying open-minded. We show respect not just by what we refrain from doing but also by intentional acts, such as being on time, dressing appropriately, or giving our full attention to the person or people we’re with.
Self-respect is just as important as respect for others. A person who respects herself isn’t boastful or pushy but is secure in a way that inspires confidence in others. She values herself regardless of her physical attributes or individual talents, understanding that integrity and character are what really matter.
Consideration is about having empathy for another person, and the key to consideration is thoughtful behavior. Being thoughtful means thinking about what you can do for those around you and how your actions will affect them. Consideration leads us to help a friend or stranger in need, to bestow a token of appreciation, or to offer praise.
Honesty is both about about telling the truth and avoiding even white lies, and about acting sincerely and with integrity. We should add that we like benevolent rather than brutal honesty. It’s the basis of tact: Using empathy to find the positive truth and telling or acting on it, without causing embarrassment or pain to someone else. Honesty is also about being authentic and genuine with others. No one likes insincere, “lip-service” politeness—it can be as bad as outright rudeness.
Put these three principles together and act on them in your daily life and you will be the soul of graciousness and have excellent relationships as a result. These three principles will see you through thick and thin, guiding you through differences of opinion or interactions with difficult people who cross your path and helping you to build even better relationships with those close to you.