Thoughts on Etiquette


Written by: Laohnorian Madani

Photo from: Unsplash

In this fast-paced world, many commentators have expressed fears that the revolution in communication precipitated by globalization and technology is leading to less appreciation for the finer skills of person-to-person communication. In interactions with peers and acquaintances, I (and many others I know) have often witnessed obvious symptoms of this, such as an increased unwillingness to listen to critical opinions, misunderstandings over words leading to arguments, and most crucially, the assumption that a point was successfully communicated, while in reality, it was not. George Bernard Shaw famously stated that “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”, as the intent of the speaker can often be changed or masked by the recipient’s own thoughts and assumptions.

Of course, everything I’ve said in the above paragraph is pretty rhetorical, but effective communication is so important to social interaction, I think it all merits repetition. With that in mind, what precisely is the antidote to the ‘illusion’ of communication Shaw is implying, where the assumption of communication does not match with reality? I argue that there is only one sufficient answer – the promotion of civility and tolerance in communication, as a form of what used to be called etiquette.

To quote the Cambridge Dictionary, etiquette is defined as “the set of rules or customs that control accepted behaviour in particular social groups or social situations”, or in other words, the accumulated set of social norms expected in a civil, well-behaved society. However, this respectable premise has become the subject of considerable exaggeration and sarcasm, though to be fair, much of that arose on the basis of the objectionable historical applications of etiquette, such as the legitimization of strict gender and racial roles, even if this does not relate to the actual definition of etiquette. As a result, laymen largely view the concept of ‘etiquette’ as an ancient relic with little pertinence to the present day. With that said, it is strange to see that while etiquette retains its importance in the context of setting out rules for certain demographics, like with diplomatic, medical, or legal etiquette, it is largely underrated in the context of a general code for individual communication.

In this proposed social etiquette, I find that the two pillars of civility and tolerance are basically a stable enough foundation to support anything else interpersonal communication requires, and so should be at the center of a new communications framework.

Firstly, civility is typically represented as a synonym for politeness, but while politeness refers to behaviour that is both socially correct and appreciative of other people’s feelings, civility is based on professional social behaviour without necessarily being polite. There will always be certain occasions where polite communication is difficult or impossible, but civility can at least provide a general minimum of decency. 

The applications of such interpersonal etiquette were my inspiration for thinking about the role civility plays in a code for effective communication. A personal example arose when I presented several constructive criticisms to a colleague of mine regarding the nature of a task we were both working on, and following a civil debate on the matter, a consensus was reached and both parties apologized for misunderstanding each other’s intentions. I found it intriguing that this interaction’s successful conclusion did not depend on us being polite, instead depending on our ability to view the situation impartially, and so communicate in a civil manner, without resorting to emotional impulses.

However, civility alone is not sufficient for effective communication, as it can frequently lead to icy stalemates, particularly when two fundamentally opposed people and/or groups approach one another with little intent of appreciating what the other has to say. While they might bring up certain controversial matters, both parties assume that their rivals are completely wrong, and thus take everything they propose as further proof for this faulty premise, leading to the creation of echo chambers, to use the social media lingo. Stuck in an echo chamber, the person becomes saturated with information (and intentions) that satisfy their own confirmation bias, while dismissing any contrary evidence, no matter how credible, as entirely outlandish. Once an individual plunges into the depths of an echo chamber, recovery is very difficult, and in the interim, communication on an increasing amount of issues becomes entirely meaningless. 

This is where the premise of tolerance comes in, defined as a “willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them”. While civility provides a standard of decency in the actual language people use to communicate, I feel that tolerance provides a standard of decency for the thoughts people have while communicating. An exchange of dishonest pleasantries is one thing, but having an actual willingness to appreciate another individual’s input (and, for that matter, that individual appreciating any criticisms or disagreements you might bring up) adds so much to a conversation that civility cannot necessarily compensate for.

Ultimately, civility and tolerance are two wings of the same bird, as in effective communication, one cannot exist without the other. If there is no minimal decency in interactions, how do you expect tolerance to thrive? Similarly, without the tolerance aspect, what is civility but an excuse for meaningless pleasantries?

So, let me rest my case: when it comes to curing the many ills of interpersonal communication, I argue that reviving the premise of etiquette into a set of social norms, based on civility and tolerance working together, would be an effective, if not simple, manner of largely preventing the many communication problems that directly affect individual and societal well-being. Every policy that gets passed, every initiative for the betterment (or detriment) of the world, and most importantly, just about every relevant social interaction depends on effective standards of communication.

Despite the fundamental role civility and tolerance play in anchoring the idea of etiquette in interpersonal communication, I would be mistaken to suggest that adhering to etiquette is always possible. In certain circumstances, such as interactions between hostile parties and life-threatening events, etiquette might be impossible to maintain, as the need for self-preservation often overrides it. However, no code of etiquette is ever universal – diplomatic etiquette is discarded during times of war, legal etiquette is sometimes controversially breached as a last resort to protect national security (and vested interest), and medical etiquette evolves with the science it is based on.

The point of etiquette has never been the creation of a universal linguistic regime, and this needs to be emphasized when think about my proposition. Etiquette should never be used to force particular patterns of thought. The one essential purpose etiquette serves is promoting a standard of decency in human interactions, and this proposed code of etiquette for communication intends to achieve just that.

While the path might not be easy, seeing as it requires fundamental changes in mindset from all sides of a super-charged public discourse, when has a fundamentally good thing ever been easy to achieve? So, I would conclude by urging all the readers of my words to consider what they can do, in their personal lives, to facilitate the collective awakening required to deal with the underlying issue of communication. Polarization and pointless bickering serve no one, so even if it means making concessions on hyper-specific points, accepting fundamentally correct rebuttals, or even simply agreeing to disagree, we ought to take constructive steps to create a more nurturing discussion environment.

After finishing that conversation with my colleague, I felt surprisingly relieved that civility over disagreements still exists in this fragmented world. We are better than where we are right now.


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