Etiquette, also known as decorum, is the code that governs the expectations of social behavior, the conventional norm. It is an unwritten code, but it may evolve from or into a written code. The Greek equivalent of etiquette was protokollon, protocol, the written formula for ceremonial. It usually reflects a theory of conduct that society or tradition has invested heavily in. Like "culture", it is a word that has gradually grown plural, especially in a multi-ethnic society with many clashing expectations. Thus, it is now possible to refer to "an etiquette" or "a culture", realizing that these may not be universal.


Norms and Effects of Etiquette

Etiquette fundamentally prescribes and restricts the ways in which people interact with each other, and show their respect for other people by conforming to the norms of society. Modern Western etiquette instructs us to: greet friends and acquaintances with warmth and respect, refrain from insults and prying curiosity, offer hospitality equally and generously to our guests, wear clothing suited to the occasion, contribute to conversations without dominating them, offer a chair or a helping arm to those who need assistance, eat neatly and quietly, avoid disturbing others with loud music or unnecessary noise, follow the established rules of a club or legislature upon becoming a member, arrive promptly when expected, comfort the bereaved, and respond to invitations promptly.

Roman etiquette varied by class. In the upper strata of Roman society, etiquette would have instructed a man to: greet friends and acquaintances with decorum, according to their rank, refrain from showing emotions in public, keep his womenfolk secluded from his clients, support his family's position with public munificence, and so on.

Violations of etiquette, if severe, can cause public disgrace, and in private hurt individual feelings, create misunderstandings or real grief and pain, and can even escalate into murderous rage. Many family feuds have their beginnings in trivial etiquette violations that were blown out of proportion. One can reasonably view etiquette as the minimal politics required to avoid major conflict in polite society, and as such, an important aspect of applied ethics. An etiquette is sometimes considered to reflect the underlying ethical code itself.

In the West, the notion of etiquette, being of French origin and arising from practices at the court of Louis XIV, is occasionally disparaged as old-fashioned or elite, a code concerned only with "which fork to use". Some people consider etiquette to be an unnecessary restriction of freedom of personal expression. Others consider such people to be unmannerly and rude. For instance, wearing pajamas to a wedding in a cathedral may be an expression of the guest's freedom, but may also cause the bride and groom to suspect that the guest in pajamas is expressing amusement or disparagement towards them and their wedding. Etiquette may be enforced in pragmatic ways: "No shoes, no shirt, no service" is a notice commonly displayed outside stores and cafés in the warmer parts of North America. Others feel that a single, basic code shared by all makes life simpler and more pleasant by removing many chances for misunderstandings.


Manners involve a wide range of social interactions within cultural norms as in Comedy of manners, or a painter's characteristic "manner". Etiquette and manners, like mythology have buried histories especially when they seem to have little obvious purpose, and their justifications as logical ("respect shown to others" etc.) may be equally revealing to the social historian.

In sociology, manners are the unenforced standards of conduct which show the actor to be cultured, polite, and refined. They are like laws in that they codify or set a standard for human behavior, but they are unlike laws in that there is no formal system for punishing transgressions. They are a kind of norm. What is considered "mannerly" is highly susceptible to change with time, geographical location, social stratum, occasion, and other factors. That manners matter is evidenced by the fact that large books have been written on the subject, advice columns frequently deal with questions of mannerly behavior, and that schools have existed for the sole purpose of teaching manners. A lady is a term frequently used for a woman who follows proper manners; the term gentleman is used as a male counterpart; though these terms are also often used for members of a particular social class. They are also used a polite form of greeting for persons in general, especially in the common greeting towards a group or audience, "Ladies and gentlemen!".

Manners ease the stress of communal living, and mannerly behavior recognizes the right of others to share communal space. Many of our daily expressions of politeness reflect this function. Saying "excuse me," for example, shows that you recognize that you have invaded another's space, and regret the necessity of doing so. It is a basic tenet in law that it is wrongful to cause damages to another (see norm). Since there cannot be a law for every slight, daily causing of damage to another, manners serve to at least acknowledge, if not make recompense, for the damage.

One thinker, Judith Martin, (aka Miss Manners — see Further Reading below) regrets that in recent times the idea that one should be "assertive" has gained currency, holding that being assertive is simply another name for "the Impulse Rude," which is to be resisted at all times. She prefers "the withering look, the insistent and repeated request, the cold voice, the report up the chain of command, and the tilted nose." She also rejects the idea that manners is all about making people comfortable, "as if etiquette weren't magnificently capable of being used to make others feel uncomfortable," all in the name of preserving peace in the public arena.

Cultural Differences

Hunting lice by candlelight, Andries Both (Dutch, ca.1612/13–1641)

Etiquette is dependent on culture; what is excellent etiquette in one society may shock in another. Etiquette evolves within culture. The Dutch painter Andries Both shows that the hunt for head lice (illustration, right), which had been a civilized grooming occupation in the early Middle Ages, a bonding experience that reinforced the comparative rank of two people, one groomed, one groomer, had become a peasant occupation by 1630. The painter portrays the familiar operation matter-of-factly, without the sarcasm this subject would have received in a 19th-century representation.

Etiquette can vary widely between different cultures and nations. In China, a person who takes the last item of food from a common plate or bowl without first offering it to others at the table may be seen as a glutton and insulting the generosity of the host, while in most European cultures a guest is expected to eat all of the food given to them, as a compliment to the quality of the cooking. In some societies it is considered rude to eat with the left hand, and left handed individuals are sometimes forced to try and use their right hand.

Etiquette is a topic that has occupied writers and thinkers in all sophisticated societies for millennia, beginning with a behavior code by Ptahhotep, a vizier in ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom during the reign of the Fifth Dynasty king Djedkare Isesi (ca. 2414–2375 B.C.E.). All known literate civilizations, including ancient Greece and Rome, developed rules for proper social conduct. Confucius included rules for eating and speaking along with his more philosophical sayings. Early modern conceptions of what behavior identifies a "gentleman" were codified in the 16th century in a book by Baldassare Castiglione, Il Cortegiano ("The Courtier"), which remained in force in its essentials until World War I. Louis XIV established an elaborate and rigid court ceremony, but distinguished himself from the high bourgeoisie by continuing to eat, stylishly and fastidiously, with his fingers. An important book about etiquette is Galateo, overo de' costumi by Monsignor Giovanni della Casa; in fact, in Italian, etiquette is generally called galateo (or etichetta or protocollo).

Baldassare Castiglione, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington wrote codes of conduct for young gentlemen. The immense popularity of advice columns and books by Miss Manners shows the currency of this topic. Even more recently, the rise of the Internet has necessitated the adaptation of existing rules of conduct to create Netiquette, which governs the drafting of email, rules for participating in online forums, and so on.

The outward adoption of the superficial mannerisms of an in-group, in the interests of social advancement rather than a concern for others, is a form of snobbism.


  • Truss, Lynn (Nov. 14, 2005). "Don't be so rude". New Straits Times, p. L12–L13.

Further Reading

  • "From Clueless to Class Act" Series of books on etiquette by Jodi Smith deals with proper etiquette for men and women. Her website can be found at where she also produces a newsletter.
  • Town & Country Modern Manners: The Thinking Person's Guide to Social Graces, edited by Thomas P. Farley, Hearst Books (September 2005),ISBN 1-58816-454-3, 256 pages

The books of Norbert Elias shed useful light on the development of etiquette in early modern Europe. Judith Martin (Miss Manners) has written several books on etiquette in modern society. Written in 1922 but still invaluable today, Emily Post wrote "Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home" which can be found at

  • Manners from Heaven: A Divine Guide to Good Behaviour, by Quentin Crisp, HarperCollins Publishers (June 13, 1985), ISBN 0-00-654133-X, 138 pages
  • Town & Country Modern Manners: The Thinking Person's Guide to Social Graces, edited by Thomas P. Farley, Hearst Books (September 2005), ISBN 1-58816-454-3, 256 pages
  • Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, by Judith Martin, W. W. Norton & Company; Updated edition (April 25, 2005), ISBN 0-393-05874-3, 864 pages
  • Emily Post's Etiquette, by Peggy Post, HarperResource; 17th Indxd edition (November 1, 2004), ISBN 0-06-620957-9, 896 pages

Articles offering Etiquette Advice:


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