The Social Psychology of Etiquette

This third post in a series about good manners, courtesy, and kindness combines my education, training, and experience as a social psychologist with something with which I have always been fascinated: etiquette. Unlike almost everyone else I know, I love the rules of etiquette and I try, diligently, to follow them in everything I do. Mom, of course, instilled in me the notion that good manners and courtesy are nothing more than kindness and respect for other people. She, along with her “helpers,” such as Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, Judith Martin, and Letitia Baldrige, ensured I knew, among other things, which fork was which from an early age. Mom enrolled me in a modeling class, which included instruction on how to sit properly, make polite conversation, etc. She also signed me up for the Southern tradition (or atrocity, depending on one’s perspective) of Cotillion, where impressionable teenagers are strongly encouraged to mingle, appropriately, with members of the opposite sex. I have long observed the interaction between social psychology, which is the scientific study of people in group situations, and etiquette, which, of course, is important for almost everyone who interacts with other people. (I use the qualifier, “almost everyone” because it has been my experience that some people are hopelessly boorish, and perhaps, proud of it!) When interacting with other people in a group setting, there are many social norms of behavior, including not ordering the most expensive menu items at a restaurant when one is not paying the bill, waiting to eat until one’s host has arrived at the table after working hard preparing one’s meal, and not bringing up painful conversation topics. I could go on and on and on, but suffice it to say, there are reasons why proper etiquette will elevate some people to a higher status than their “low life” friends. Hmm. I think there may be another book developing in my mind!

Melissa is much more of a student of, and teacher of, etiquette than am I. And she has taught me a thing or two in this regard over the past 30+ years. But, I had some other good teachers, including my mother, and another person about whom I wrote previously, Jon Peters. Jon corrected me on the way I held a fork many years ago. Then, within a few years, I went to live in Australia and found they had a completely different norm for holding silverware. Norms are really what etiquette is all about, yet, norms are not normal for everyone. Some of the many employees we have had over the years have proven this. Quite a few of the recent college graduates who we have hired over the year came to us in need of remedial etiquette training. The most obvious areas of deficiency have been noticed when we were dining together. It is awkward, as an employer, to correct these behaviors, yet we have had to do so because we realize that the improper behaviors reflect on us as the employer, that is, on the company. And, table manners are one thing, ordering “correctly,” as Melissa noted, includes not ordering the most expensive thing on the menu, but it also includes not ordering a 5 course meal just because someone else is paying. Those with the ability to self monitor, that is, to observe what others are doing and follow suit, are much better able to appear to operate within norms, and to learn from the activity. Being oblivious to what others are doing is a recipe for failure, in many respects.

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