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Whenever there is a contest between etiquette and acknowledged virtues, etiquette loses. Hardly anyone would dispute the proposition that morals are more important than mere manners, and the assertion that etiquette can and should be jettisoned for a higher good is commonly made and accepted in everyday life.

“I’m concerned about people’s health,” is a typical explanation offered by someone who admonishes others, sometimes even strangers in restaurants, that what they’re eating is bad for them. The moral virtue of devotion to the well-being of others supposedly obliterates the rule of etiquette against minding other people’s business.

“You want me to be honest, don’t you?” has come to be the standard response from anyone challenged for the practice of telling friends that they look terrible, exhibit bad taste, give boring parties, or sing off-key. Although these statements are proscribed by etiquette, which classifies them as insults, they are allegedly permissible when reclassified as morally virtuous truth-telling.

“This is more important,” an activist will declare when called upon to defend cursing passersby for wearing fur or leather coats, or scolding coffee-drinkers for using styrofoam cups. The moral worth of his cause on behalf of animals or the environment is seen as overriding the etiquette injunction against humiliating people.

Since expressing one’s feelings came to be considered a virtue (under such names as assertiveness or self-esteem, which are supposed to suggest a laudable strength of character), simply succumbing to a desire to say or do something may be cited as good reason for canceling the claims of etiquette. A common justification for ignoring the etiquette rule against nosiness is the simple admission of curiosity. In those rare instances, nowadays, when someone who asks personal questions is taxed with invasion of privacy, the offender points out he was simply “wondering” or “interested in” what another paid for his house, why he uses a wheelchair, or whether he is planning to get a divorce. The justification given for almost any uncivilized behavior by children, including annoying other people and damaging their property, is their manifestation not just of self-expression, but of the creative spirit.

Even the failure to do something may be given a moral dimension that excuses ignoring the requirements of etiquette. Such omissions as not visiting the dying or attending funerals, and not sending thank-you letters in return for hospitality, favors, or presents, were once perceived as evidence of rudeness, presumably prompted by selfishness or sloth. Now the explanations (“I want to remember him as he was”; “Funerals give me the creeps”; “I hate to write letters”; “People should do things just because they want to not because they expect to be thanked”) imply that there is virtue in the act of refusing to let the expectations of etiquette prevail over personal disinclinations. Indeed, these explanations imply that it is anyone who expects that distaste for the duties of etiquette to be overcome who is exhibiting a lack of compassion and respect.

In a bizarre twist, enforcing polite behavior has come to be considered a virtue that relieves anyone who engages in it from having himself to be polite. A new set of etiquette vigilantes who spot such etiquette violations as smoking in the presence of nonsmokers without their permission or refusing to extend road courtesies to other drivers will proudly report having used obscenities and threats in order to make the violators “mind their manners.”

Even among those who profess to value good manners (which frequently turns out to mean that they dislike being treated rudely without necessarily being willing to behave politely themselves), it is widely held that the decline of etiquette is a problem to be dealt with only after the panoply of more serious social problems has been solved.

But what if the decline of etiquette is one of the most serious social problems, from which other serious social problems devolve merely as epiphenomena?

Throughout most of recorded history, theologians and philosophers have extolled propriety and correct social behavior as virtues akin to morality. It is chiefly in this century that they have come to regard etiquette as a dispensable frill, at best; at worse, they have denounced it as a sin. Hypocrisy is the damning label now attached to any polite inhibition that disguises a sincerely held opinion or restrains a righteous impulse for action.

But I would contend that obeisance to etiquette, far from being a weak and optional virtue, much less a sin, is the oldest social virtue, and an indispensable partner of morality. Rather than being the crowning touch of good behavior in the upper reaches of a stratified society, etiquette is civilization’s first necessity.

Since time immemorial, etiquette has been used to establish the principles of social virtue, as well as the rules, symbols, and rituals of civilized life. Historically, it preceded the invention of the law as a restraint of individual behavior for the common good, surely making etiquette the oldest deterrent to violence after fear of retaliation. Developmentally, it still precedes the teaching of moral concepts in the socialization of children.

Evidence of the prehistoric practice of etiquette—such as communal eating and ceremonial burying of the dead—has served to define civilization in its earliest manifestations. Yet there persists a widespread belief that etiquette arose from the desire of Victorian killjoys to ruin private pleasures, to quash the freedoms achieved during the Enlightenment, and to enhance the power of rich snobs over the proletariat.

This notion ignores overwhelming evidence that etiquette exists in primitive societies as much as—and often in more rigid forms than—in industrialized societies. Contemporary romantics are given to disdaining the etiquette tradition of their own modern culture, while waxing sentimental over similar practices in what they regard as more authentic cultures. But in present American society, etiquette rites are much more elaborate among the young and the poor (for example, in the dress codes, precedence systems, gestures of greeting, and modes of address in urban street gangs) than among the rich, who have increasingly abandoned the very aspects of etiquette that are of vital concern on the streets.

Morals and manners are not conflicting, but complementary, and sometimes overlapping, parts of the ensemble of fundamental beliefs and needs that we hold simply because we are rational agents blessed with practical reason. Moral beliefs include such concepts as duty, obligation, responsibility, and sacredness of the person, while manners include such beliefs and needs as communal harmony, cultural coherence, and dignity of the person. Ethics and etiquette refer to sets of imperatives commanding social behavior that derive their authority as rational prescriptive systems from morals and manners, respectively.

Hence, committing murder, which violates the sacredness of the person, is immoral, while causing humiliation, which violates the dignity of the person, is unmannerly. But such virtues as compassion, respect, and toleration are shared by morals and manners, and hence form the basis of imperatives of ethics, as well as of etiquette.

In many everyday situations where conflicts between ethics and etiquette arise, giving precedence to etiquette may be the more virtuous choice. The likelihood of bringing about a higher good, i.e., eudemonia, by rudely expressing one’s concern for others’ health, voicing unflattering criticism, and forcing confrontational consideration of moral issues is small (and, in some cases, such as the friend who sings off-key, nil). However, it is nearly a certainty that these morally righteous etiquette transgressions will cause embarrassment and hurt feelings, evils that manners seek to forestall. Is hypocrisy such a heinous sin that avoiding any small amount of it is worth sacrificing the feelings of people who had mistakenly assumed that they were pleasing others?

Conflicts may arise not only between ethics and etiquette, but also within etiquette itself, when contradictory rules may apply to a given setting. The same action may appear either necessary or proscribed, depending on the relative consideration given by the agent to various aspects of the situation. Complex judgment—wisdom—is then required in order to decide on a course of action that best serves the ends of manners.

Should patients show respect for their doctor by addressing him or her by title and surname if the doctor is calling them by their first names? Is the doctor doing this because he lacks respect for his patients or because he believes that the manners of personal friendship put patients more at ease? Suppose the patients are offended, rather than put at their ease, by this practice. Should they ignore it to spare the doctor embarrassment, or correct it on the grounds that they owe this either to their own dignity, or to the doctor, to let him know that he is producing an effect opposite from that he may be intending to achieve?

Has a boss who calls women employees “honey” given evidence of evil intent, in which case he should be properly chastized, or is he of good will but ignorant of social conventions? How long after customs have changed is such ignorance excusable?

In spite of the thoughtfulness required in weighing and interpreting one’s own and others’ actions in the interests of politeness, rules of etiquette cannot always be deduced from first principles. Persons who believe that etiquette is just following common sense in applying the mannerly injunction to be considerate of others fail to recognize that etiquette serves not only a regulative function, but also a symbolic and a ritual function.

Regulative etiquette is the most easily understood of the three functions, because it resembles the law. Both the law and etiquette provide rules for the promotion of communal harmony, according to the principles of morality and of manners, respectively. The law addresses the most serious conflicts, including those threatening life, limb, and property, and dispenses such fierce sanctions as fines, imprisonment, and loss of life for violations of its rules. With only the sanction of shame at its command, etiquette addresses conflicts for which voluntary compliance is generally attainable, and thus serves to avert antagonisms that might escalate into violations of law. In this respect, etiquette resembles international law, which seeks to avert war, but has only the sanction of shame with which to enforce its rules upon sovereign states.

Because both etiquette rules and laws are fashioned to pertain to a particular time and social setting, they are subject to development and change, albeit slowly because of their inertia due to tradition. However, the principles of manners and morals from which they derive their authority remain constant and universal. Even directly contradictory rules of etiquette prevailing in different societies at the same time, or at different times in the same society, may derive their authority from the same principle of manners.

Failing to take off one’s shoes when arriving at a dinner party in Japan would show a lack of respect for the hosts, while seating guests with their backs to the most decorative part of the room is understood to honor them by having these objects serve as their background. But taking off one’s shoes upon arriving at an American dinner party would be a demonstration of disrespect, while an American host who asks guests to remove their shoes in order to preserve the cleanliness of the carpet is disrespectful to the guests, by showing more honor to his possessions than to them.

Treating women courteously once required men to allow them precedence and offer them assistance, including symbolic assistance for tasks that even men knew women could perform unassisted. Courtesy now forbids men from offering women special precedence or assistance in the working world, where calling attention to their gender, and suggesting that it requires protection, puts women at a professional disadvantage. In the private realm, the old-time, gender-related courtesies still prevail, although they are increasingly falling into disuse. It is likely that precedence and assistance will soon come to be based solely on age and need, a system that creates new hazards by requiring people to guess these attributes in others who may well take insult from being categorized, accurately or not, as being old or helpless.

(Does this change in customs mean that etiquette authorizes a woman offered a seat by a man, or a frail-appearing man offered a seat by a robust youth, to snap out, “I can stand just as well as you can”? No, because the injunction against reproving the author of an obviously well-intentioned gesture is an unalterable principle of manners.)

Because etiquette is both voluntary and flexible, and thus able to prevent or settle a myriad of minor disputes that would otherwise have to be handled by the law, often after first erupting into violence, a complex society cannot operate properly without using both etiquette and, where voluntary compliance fails, law. This has been demonstrated in recent years, when a declining belief in etiquette as a legitimate force in regulating social conduct has prompted American society to try to get along without it.

Many Americans came to believe—and to put into practice—the idea that any behavior not prohibited by law ought to be tolerated. As a result, people who found rude but legally permitted behavior intolerable have attempted to expand the law to outlaw rudeness. For this purpose, they escalated the consequences of rudeness to bring it into categories that were already given serious attention by the law. Thus, any insult became slander or libel, meanness became mental cruelty, and annoyances from tobacco smoke or noise became health hazards.

This attempt to redefine manners violations as moral violations poses a threat to the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. Freedom of expression, as we understand it, is compromised when mere obnoxiousness is outlawed. And yet the very practices of a democratic state, including such governmental business as legislative sessions and judicial proceedings, cannot be carried out effectively if there are no restraints on the rights of people to disrupt them. That is why there is no unlimited free speech even in legislative sessions or courtroom trials where free speech itself is the subject under discussion. If everyone were allowed to talk at once, or if such provocative tactics as obscenities, personal invective, and a show of disrespect for authority were permitted, the very purpose of the debate would be frustrated.

Our educational institutions have had a difficult time with the free speech/etiquette paradox. This can only be resolved once it is recognized that an institution may insist upon adherence to etiquette in order to further its mission, without these restrictions on the freedom of expression at certain times and places necessarily constituting an abridgement of right guaranteed by law. It can allow people to attack ideas without allowing them to attack one another, and freely protect the discussion of offensive topics without permitting the use of offensive speech.

In the less easily understood symbolic function of etiquette, its rules are rarely deducible from first principles. Untutored people who raise such questions as “Why should I wear a tie when it doesn’t serve any purpose?” fail to understand the rich vocabulary of symbolism provided by etiquette, which enables people to recognize essential attributes or intentions of others, such as that a man wearing a tie is treating the occasion seriously. Because the relation between symbols and the things they stand for is arbitrary, symbolic etiquette is a powerful means of communication. Even those who demand their own sartorial freedom from symbolism would not hire a defense lawyer who wore pajamas (which would serve the practical function of covering the body as well as a suit) to court, or submit to an operation by a brain surgeon who wore a Dracula sweatshirt in his consulting room.

In its ritual function, etiquette serves the sacred, as a means of satisfying those of our spiritual needs that make us distinctly human. It provides for the ceremonies and traditions that serve to bind a society and to make such chaotically emotional occasions as weddings and funerals solemn and orderly. The powerful hold that such rites have on people is evidenced by their continuance even when their sacred purpose is explicitly denied or subverted.

At contemporary funerals, some speaker usually announces, “We’re not here to mourn [the deceased] but to celebrate his life.” Yet the observance that follows is a variation of the traditional funeral, with the eulogies often given by laymen—friends or relatives—rather than by members of the clergy, for the good reason that these functionaries are no longer apt to be acquainted with the people whom they are called upon to bury.

Wedding rites originally intended for young women passing from their fathers’ protection to their husbands’ have remained surprisingly unchanged, even though the bride may be self-supporting, a substitute must be found for an absent father, and she may be surrounded by her children rather than her girlish friends. And yet the intent of the ceremony, in making the union of the couple part of a wider commitment involving family and the community, is often abandoned, as evidenced by the typical bridal couple’s excuse for a lack of consideration for the wishes and comfort of relatives and other guests: “Well, it’s our wedding, so we get to do whatever we want.”

The attitude that the wishes of others do not matter is exactly what manners are intended to counter. And no one has yet come up with a satisfactory substitute for family etiquette training in the earliest years of life to foster the development of the child in such principles of manners as consideration, cooperation, loyalty, respect, and to teach the child such etiquette techniques as settling disputes through face-saving compromise. Within the family, the manners that are needed (although not always in evidence) are those associated with responsibility and compassion, rather than individuality and strict justice: care of the helpless, respect for elders and for authority, allotment of resources on the basis of need, empathy with the feelings of others, the accommodation of differences.

From the earliest weeks of life, when an infant is taught to control hunger in order to meet the sleeping needs of parents and to fit into a social pattern in which people do not eat during the night; through babyhood, where etiquette skills include learning conventional greetings such as morning kisses and waving bye-bye; to toddler training in such concepts as sharing toys with a guest, refraining from hitting, and expressing gratitude for presents, manners are used to establish a basis for other virtues.

The schools are not able to teach these principles, however valiantly they may try, because a mannerly attitude and etiquette skills are prerequisites for learning anything at all in a school setting. As a result of the ever-wider abandonment of home etiquette training, schools have become increasingly stymied by problems they identify as lack of discipline and commitment to moral behavior, but which usually mean the children’s failure to recognize that communal goals may outweigh individual desires, and their ignorance of what is and is not acceptable behavior in the classroom.

Clinical psychology and the law have tried to compensate for the decline of etiquette training of children in the home. But they face an almost hopeless task, in that the language of mental health and legal rights obscures the discourse by presuming a world in which people’s behavior is guided only by the rules of law and medicine. A society can hope to function virtuously only when it also recognizes the legitimacy of manners.

Judith Martin, also known as “Miss Manners,” is a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millenium. An earlier version of this essay was given at a conference sponsored by the New York-based Institute on American Values. Copyright 1993, Judith Martin.