As a Certified Image and Etiquette consultant, for over 25 years I’ve watched the definition of etiquette evolve and expand, especially in the world of business.
Thirty years ago, anyone using the word etiquette in everyday speech might have been laughed out of town. Let’s face it; etiquette had a bad rap. It was synonymous with pretension – the Holy Grail of an elite fraternity of social snobs. Rather like curtsying at a debutantes’ ball. There were exceptions, of course. No one questioned the etiquette of addressing then President Jimmy Carter as “Mr. President” – a clear gesture of respect for both the office, and the man.
My recent keyword search in the New York Times resulted in 14 articles and blogs that referred to etiquette – all within the last month. Of those, 12 were cross-referenced to business etiquette! Topics ranged from the etiquette of twittering and conducting interviews, to the art of gracefully declining alcohol, at business events. The writers all used the word etiquette to express a combination of the right behavior, courtesy, good form and manners — simultaneously.
Detractors of the word may still dismissively overreact to its usage for anything other than the formalities of which fork to select at White House banquets. But the 14 mentions in the NYT included: golfing, surfing, biking and swimming pool etiquette. In a nutshell, sport etiquette! Clearly, etiquette does not imply formality. Etiquette offers a framework or blueprint for appropriate behavior according to the environment. Today, “netiquette,” defines the rules of conduct for online communication. UPPER CASE, as we all know, is interpreted as shouting.
The concept of etiquette had it origins in the grandiose days of Versailles. Etiquette is Old French for ticket, sign or label, and during the reign of Louis XIV, zealous palace gardeners installed “Keep off the Grass” signs. Courtiers were encouraged to respect these signs or étiquettes. Before long, the term became the court buzzword for the rules defining a strict code of contrived and highly affected, rigid manners.
Many so-called rules of etiquette were originally based on gallantry. The tradition of a gentleman walking beside the road, with her ladyship closer to the buildings, comes to mind. During the 16th century in England, garbage was often tipped out from the floors above street level. The gesture was to protect women. Yet to many of today’s young urbanites it makes no more sense than our grandparents’ dance cards.
Today, we associate etiquette with correct, but not inflexible behavior — it does, indeed, provide the specifications, or code for modern life. Etiquette is a constant work in progress. “Last year’s etiquette in fact, may be this year’s humor,” writes a woman in 1933.
Subscribe to our FREE monthly newsletter
Download your free Executive Presence Scorecard