We don’t much think of etiquette these days. The word itself has been relegated to occasional use during a Jane Austen book club meeting, but etiquette has a place today, and the absence of it makes us less joyful.
Here are some scenes: You’re about to walk into a bank, and the person just a few steps ahead of you lets the massive beast of a door slam in your face; you sit down at the dinner table with friends and five minutes into your meal half the table is answering phone messages and browsing the web; after the late movie, everybody walks to their cars alone, in the dark; you host parties at your home but don’t seem to get invited to anyone else’s parties.
Our lives are full of these experiences, and the list could go on. Of course, one could just accuse me of being an old snobbish curmudgeon — and there may be a small amount of truth in their accusation — but at the risk of sounding uncool, out of touch, or simply annoying, I will make a case for the importance of etiquette in our lives.
If you’ve been reading my blogs online, you’ll know that I’m a very opinionated feminist. Yes, I am indeed a more than capable, powerful force to reckon with, but my heart still warms when someone holds the door for me. Not out of a need for physical help, but out of a need for connection, which resonates with some of what I’m finding as I pour through psychology, sociology and philosophy articles.
These three concepts continue to emerge: Vulnerability as strength; reciprocity as social glue; and the need for personal connection, for mental health and a healthy society.
When we allow ourselves to be seen — rather than putting our energy toward keeping up appearances, we create the foundation for genuine connection. It takes tremendous inner strength and courage to show vulnerability, but this is how we form deep relationships with others. When others see your vulnerability, they’re more likely to be vulnerable (reciprocity). We have to stop our busyness, see each other, listen to each other and reciprocate each other’s kindnesses if we’re to live happy, connected lives.
How in the world, you ask, does this have anything to do with etiquette?
Etiquette has built-in reciprocity rules, and reciprocity acts as the social glue.
Let’s re-examine our scenes:
When you hold the door for me, you’ve noticed that I was about to step into the building too. You looked up, out of your own world, and took a second to recognize mine. As a result, I smile and say thank you, because it feels good to be seen. This creates a second reaction in you — that is, you feel good too.
When we sit at dinner together and wait for everyone before we eat, we take a moment from our life to wait, and to be grateful for each other, for the food prepared for us. Gratitude is like Prozac for the mind. Then as we continue eating and talking with each other (and not with our phones), we discover something amazing about each other and start forming deep lasting connections.
When we leave a late show and we ask each other where we parked, it indicates we care. Escorting each other to our cars is more and more important as we live in an ever-growing city–besides safety, it just lets us know we care for each other. We’re here together, and we’re willing to take the extra time to make sure we’re OK.
As for my last point, my parents had a vibrant social life because it was considered cultural norm to invite those who had invited you. Anybody was welcomed into the circle if they played the reciprocal game. If somebody broke the rule over and over again, eventually that person was not invited for the next party. It was so deeply embedded in the culture nobody had to explain it. As a result, though I grew up in a small family, we had a vast network of friends. The invites didn’t have to be formal — bunny slippers, a slice of cake and coffee did the trick — but somebody was over at least twice a week.
How often do you see your friends? And before we cry out “Who has time?” may I point out that we, on average, browse the web and watch TV about two to four hours per day. This is time looking at a screen instead of each other.
With every little interaction lost, we lose a chance to feel joy, gratitude and connection. However small these interactions are, they add up. We live in a society that is more connected technologically than ever before but much less connected emotionally.
I say we can do better if we bring back some etiquette. Let’s not miss out on the small joys of life. Stop, look, listen, and mindfully reciprocate kindness and gratitude.
Dora Gyarmati teaches yoga and mindfulness classes. She owns Spira Power Yoga in Issaquah and West Seattle. Her company M3Bmethod also lectures on resilience and stress management to professionals in health care and technology.