In her 1922 best-selling book, Etiquette, Emily Post wrote, “Etiquette must, if it is to be of more than trifling use, include ethics as well as manners.”
So, just what is the relationship between ethics and manners or etiquette? Both manners and ethics help us to interact with each other. The key to etiquette is that, be it ethics or manners, it helps us to build stronger and better relationships with all the people in our lives.
At their most fundamental ethics have a moral component. For instance, the person who steals someone’s lunch from the break room is not just committing a violation of manners. They are making a moral decision when absconding with what belongs to someone else, and they are doing it knowingly, intentionally. Similarly, taking a sick day when you really aren’t sick is a moral issue. Lying and cheating are moral issues rather than simply an issue of manners. All these moral choices are intentional actions. The unethical person chooses to act in a way contrary to a moral code; he is aware that the action is an improper one, but he chooses to do it anyway.
Manners, on the other hand, don’t have a moral component to them. Instead, manners are guideposts that help us to interact more successfully with those around us. There may be a correct or an incorrect way to handle a given situation, but there is no moral decision involved. In essence, manners tell us what to do and what to expect others to do as we interact. Holding a door for another person does not include a moral component. Neither does filling the paper tray in the photocopier when it is empty. The action is done simply because it is the considerate and respectful thing to do for another human being, not because there is any moral choice involved
Unethical behaviors are more likely to be intentional, whereas a lapse in manners is usually unintentional. For instance, manners tell us not to answer a smartphone while we are talking to a person face-to-face. Yet, people do break with this manner every day. The person answering the phone doesn’t do it to be rude; he does it because he has been programmed, in a previous context, to answer a phone when it is ringing.
Manners and morals both involve the way we choose to act with each other and both underlie the very essence of etiquette. Etiquette is both mannerly and ethical, the daily practice of awareness and intentionality in our actions with others.
If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to [email protected] You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at infiniteguest.org.
Peter Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at emilypost.com.
Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled etiquette issues 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.