One hears it all the time: people bemoaning how other people have become so rude, not even remembering the most basic of good manners. It isn’t a stretch to make the observation that etiquette is on the decline. Why so? What to do about it?

‘Etiquette’ is one of those words that conjures up Victorian drawing rooms, with people speaking in hushed tones and watching every word they say. It can be defined quite broadly as the code of polite behaviour in society that has become customary and normative. It informs how we should behave with and amongst each other. As the French would perfectly say, it’s the delicatesse of our social interactions. Yet there is something rather limp-wristed about etiquette, as if it is somehow out of place in the rough and tumble, anything goes attitude of modern living. 

That makes it all the more remarkable that so many continue to fight (or at least want) some modicum of etiquette to be respected. And etiquette does continue to prevail in many scenarios. There is the etiquette inherent in any interview for a decent job, for example. Or the deferent way one approaches a leader of a faith, even if one is a non-believer. It’s just expected of us. Etiquette (read: simple good manners) or the expectation thereof springs up everywhere. Canada’s largest news outlet, The Globe and Mail, just recently did an article titled “The gym rat’s unwritten code of etiquette” which includes must-dos in the gym such as respecting other peoples’ space, not ogling excessively (tsk, tsk) and putting away equipment when used (hear, hear). Yes, even sweaty gyms require a modicum of consideration for others.

Technology has certainly played its part in the erosion of good manners. ‘Netiquette’ seems a paradox. What was once unacceptable behaviour has become perfectly acceptable. Take the writing of a letter, for example – or its modern equivalent, the email. In the past, when writing a letter, it was unthinkable to not begin it with a ‘Dear so-and-so’ and conclude it without a ‘sincerely’ or a ‘kind regards’ or the like. There was a structure to a letter and in that structure was politeness. Now we get inundated with emails that don’t even address one by name and don’t even conclude politely. And that includes emails from people we don’t even know. It’s the digital equivalent of having someone snap their fingers and expect you to jump to attention, as if honoured by their rudeness.

It is very telling that more than half of the rules listed in a 2014 Forbes article titled “27 Etiquette Rules For Our Times” had to do with technology in one form or another. It’s as if all this technology has somehow made our bad manners more ‘anonymous’ and less accountable. That’s wrong on both counts. This proliferation of bad manners has become more acceptable precisely because people are not made accountable for behaviour that until recently would have been deemed outrageous. It’s simple – people need to be called out on their bad manners and lack of consideration. That is why I particularly loved #25 on the Forbes list: “Don’t say, “I’m having a party. Bring your own food and drink.” That’s not a party.” Agreed! Yet how acceptable it’s become in this day and age…

Informality rules today – so much of it shabby and frankly lazy. It doesn’t make us better people and it cheapens and coarsens society and our interaction with one another. Are good manners a relic of the past, out of step with today’s world? Nothing could be further from the truth. Without etiquette we are nothing but a bunch of savages. Without good manners we are at the mercy of the uncouth, the rude and the very smackable. Remember that the next time you decide to talk on your cellphone at the top of your voice in crowded public transport or break off a date with a guy from Hanky by texting him at the last minute. Etiquette makes it very simple – do unto others as you would like to be done unto you.