While people often complain to me about the rudeness they experience in their lives, they also wonder whether etiquette really matters today. To explore this issue, two questions need to be addressed: What, specifically, are manners? And, why do they matter?
What are manners? Something as simple as a handshake during a greeting illustrates what manners are. The current guideline in our society is to introduce yourself to someone by extending your hand for a handshake while saying something like, “Hi, my name is Peter Post. Pleased to meet you.” So far everything is going according to established conventions. And the process continues when the person being greeted extends his or her hand and responds with something like, “Nice to meet you. I’m Jim Harper.” The focus for both people is to greet each other in what is considered a respectful manner that paves the way to building a relationship.
What happens when the person greeted doesn’t extend his or her hand? All of a sudden the moment becomes tension-filled, as the greeter’s hand hangs out there in empty space. The focus shifts immediately to why the person didn’t shake hands. Awkward at best.
There’s a manner that says when someone introduces him- or herself to you and extends their hand that you respond by shaking hands. When you do, all is good. When you don’t, the focus is squarely on “What’s wrong here.”
Manners are guidelines that help tell us what to do in a given situation and what to expect others to do in return.
Why do manners matter? Manners help smooth the interactions we experience in our daily lives, particularly interactions between strangers. Someone offers you his or her hand in a greeting, you respond by offering yours. A person holds a door for you, you respond by saying “Thank you.” Your smartphone rings while you’re in a conversation with someone, you send the call to voicemail. There are a myriad of manners out there. Emily Post’s Etiquette has about 723 pages of them, all designed to help make interactions between people go as smoothly as possible.
Generally, people are aware of the manners they should use. When I give interviews, talks, or seminars, for the most part I’m reinforcing what they already think is the right thing to do. Now they they’ve had an expert confirm that what they thought is the right way to act or respond actually is what they should do. In addition every once in a while they will hear or read about a manner or piece of etiquette they didn’t know. That’s what I call the “ah-ha” moment. That’s the real value of manners and etiquette: Being a more confident person by knowing that the actions you think are right are actually right, and every now and again learning a new manner that helps you navigate life’s waters more smoothly.
Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.