When sharing a dinner table, or public transit or the library, you realize quickly that there is no universal standard for etiquette. Very quickly. Common courtesy often feels like common sense, but it’s actually something that’s learned, for better or worse.
When we think of etiquette, we usually think of keeping elbows off the table when eating, saying please and thank you, not staring at strangers, and trying our very best not to write or draw in library books.
However, this list is just a fraction of social expectations. There is a plethora of etiquette rules that we’re often not aware that we know. There is propriety in everything from life events like weddings and baby showers, cultural activities like theaters and symphonies, and social activities like dinner parties and family gatherings.
There are etiquette rules for the workplace, for both ends of a customer service interaction, for house-sitting, social media and romance.
Even a simple, random social encounter comes with expectations of common courtesy. It’s rude to interrupt someone when they’re talking, Sharon. Very rude.
To those who wish to revise their etiquette, here are some ways you can learn to mind your manners.
■ Table manners. Did you know grape scissors are a thing? Instead of twisting and tearing a branch from your grape bunch, spilling grapes everywhere like an uncultured peasant, you can buy grape scissors. “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior” suggests using grape scissors in formal settings.
And to formally eat an apple, you’ll want to stab it with a fork, quarter it, peel if you like, and eat it with the fork. Miss Manners also advises not to bite into an unpeeled pineapple.
Amy Alkon in her 2014 book of manners suggests that the failure of common table manners, such as licking fingers or chewing with your mouth open, stems from a lack of empathy. Or what about the guy at a restaurant blowing his nose at the table? Don’t be that guy.
■ Conversation. Oftentimes I don’t find myself to be socially adequate. This is a little heart-to-heart with you all because I trust you. I feel my inadequacy lies in the daunting complexity of small talk. What do I say to someone I don’t know? I feel like every awkward pause is a personal failure that ought to condemn me to some forested cabin where I should live and die a hermit.
To my relief, Margaret Shepherd’s first three points from “The Art of Civilized Conversation” in detailing the anatomy of a conversation don’t have anything to do with having the right words. They are about tone of voice, appearance and body language, qualities that are easier to improve. To my benefit though, Shepherd continues with do’s and don’ts in conversation with example phrases to stuff in my social toolbox.
■ Workplace. The workplace correspondence that is most subject to etiquette deficiencies is email. Lay off the reply-all button, Sharon. You’re clogging up everyone’s email. For additional tact training, “Miss Manners Minds Your Business” is a great resource for workplace etiquette, discussing how to handle co-workers who don’t reply to emails, customer service complaints, or finding the delicate line between professional and overly friendly coworkers with real-world examples.
If we could just all be a little more tactful in the workplace, that’d be great.
If I sit next to you on the bus and see you reading one of these etiquette books, I’ll know the world is becoming a slightly more civilized place. Maybe I’ll even give that small talk another go to voice my approval. For those who feel encouraged to improve their propriety, you can browse the 395 section of your beloved public library.
Again, I just ask that you don’t draw in the books. It’s rude.
• Kyle Huizenga is a librarian for Yakima Valley Libraries. Learn more at www.yvl.org.