Have you ever been in a situation where you don't know the social rules and have made a major error so off-the-mark that you want to just crawl under the table and disappear? Or maybe you've had someone come into your life who has no idea how to behave and you find yourself judging and distancing from them, even if you don't want to? Please and thank you, bows and handshakes, who goes first, cellphones at the dinner table: does proper etiquette really matter?
Etiquette shows up everywhere: at a four-way stop, in what clothing we wear, how we meet and greet each other, how we design our homes and public places. There is a lot of etiquette in churches and temples and religious rituals. And a surprising amount of etiquette is food related: eating and drinking, being a guest or host, setting the table, asking for more. Perhaps this harkens back to times when food was scarce and we had to create rules to be sure everyone was fed. Or it could be because food is so central to our identities and etiquette helps to expresses this. Or maybe it just grew out of necessity around food safety and cleanliness.
Proper etiquette is tricky as it is often highlights our position in society and the workplace, and even our own homes. At its best, etiquette has the capacity to invoke thoughtfulness and hospitality, a gentle set of guidelines to help us navigate the situations and places that we share with our fellow human beings. At the same time, it's easy to use etiquette to distance ourselves from others. An overuse of formality can be about separation, creating feelings of confusion and shame.
When people don't know the social rules in a situation, they're declaring that they are strangers, that they're not one of us. How we respond to that, both as the us and as the not-us, is critical. If we choose separation, then we have chosen narrowness and suffering. If we choose kindness, then we have chosen connection and respect and we've opened the world around us. Which way do you choose to live?
As with most important things in life, etiquette offers two distinct possibilities: it's a place where you can get caught and suffer or it's a place where you can express ease and kindness. The choice is ours and it's quite simple, in my view.
First, always do your best to follow and be aware of the etiquette of your situation. If you're unsure, ask to be taught. Take for granted that there is probably something you're doing wrong and be humble and learn to cultivate curiosity (and humor) in the midst of mistakes. Likewise, if you see someone floundering, help them. Assume that what seems to be rudeness is only simple ignorance. Don't cling so tightly to proper etiquette that you lose your humanity and the capacity to laugh. Be generous with people.
Either way, try being kind and see what happens.
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I hope you enjoyed this encore Weekend Meditation, originally posted in June, 2010. I will be posting these vintage posts every Sunday (with the occasional new post, if I can manage!) for the next several months while I focus on writing my first book.