I am not an etiquette writer. Well, at least I try not to be. I am a writer and student of elegance. However, in my study of elegant living and authoring my books, I have to deal with etiquette and manners.
I hope to put this out once and for all. Etiquette and manners are not the same. They are two different things. While having good manners is the root of etiquette, having etiquette may just be a mask of manners.
Let me try to explain. Manners are kindness, whereas etiquette is simply an organized way of doing things. Etiquette is birthed out of manners, whose intentions are to develop an organized, orderly system of doing things, in consideration of how those actions might affect others.
Therefore, it is possible for someone to have etiquette but not real manners. Just like how someone may do and say all the right things but you feel that there is something not quite. It is like a facade.
For example, why is it an “etiquette” to stand to the left (or right, depending on where you are from) on an escalator? This is so that someone else in a hurry can go on his merry way quickly without disturbing anyone else. If you do not think of others and stand wherever you want, the other person will be prevented from getting off the escalator quick.
Slowly, a system develops. We are just taught to stand to the left of the escalator. If we never spent a second thinking about why everyone moves to the corner of an escalator, we would then have etiquette, not manners.
The “thinking about others” part is manners. The social behaviour of going to a corner is etiquette. Therefore I hope this illustrates why a polite person can have etiquette, but not manners.
Ideally, we should have both good manners and etiquette. Manners have its roots in kindness. Once you are kind, and you are thoughtful and considerate of others, you wouldn’t have to memorize the rules of etiquette. That is generally speaking of course. We should make some effort to learn about general etiquette, or the etiquette of another culture, especially if we have friends from other places. This is especially useful if you are required to work in another country or when you travel.
Is it possible to have manners but not etiquette? Of course.
As wonderful as we like to think we are, we have different ways of being thoughtful. We also have different ways of interpreting kindness and thoughtfulness. If we offer an elderly person our seat, we are acting in kindness. If the elderly person takes it the wrong way and thinks that you are labeling him or her old, then our actions in his or her mind is not out of kindness.
This is more apparent in culture. Each culture has developed its own social behaviour and thus etiquette.
Another example is learning the dining etiquette of various cuisines. You may have the best heart in the world but offend a hostess by pouring the wrong sauce over your food. Or giving the wrong present. For example, in some asian cultures, the giving of clocks is similar to ‘wishing death upon them’ or shoes ‘to say that their relationship or marriage will not last’.
When you visit homes, in some places it is polite to offer to wash up the dishes, and in others, helping to wash the dishes is an intrusion of privacy. These are all etiquette, not manners.
Manners first, Etiquette Second
How then, to approach life with manners and etiquette? You may ask. Should I go buy the biggest and thickest etiquette book?
I believe the best way is to have a quick browse on the internet or books for general etiquette whenever you are not sure about something. That way, you are acting out of kindness. Fret not though, if you cannot remember everything. I’ll be the first to admit etiquette books are intimidating. Whatever you don’t know, ask softly and privately if you can. Most of the time, it would be appreciated.