If the thought of learning about etiquette makes you automatically think of rules dating back to the Victorian age or the era of Louis XIV, you’re not wrong – but you’re not completely up to date either.
I know Queen Victoria never had to contend with her children trying to use a cell phone at the dinner table, and back in the days of the gilded French king, the primary point of etiquette was to make sure you never displeased him. There were rigid rules governing almost every aspect of acceptable behaviour.
Today could be more accurately described as the Age of Uncertainty when it comes to the social code. As people from different generations and different cultural backgrounds cross paths, as society becomes more casual, and as more interactions occur over technological distance rather than face-to-face, it can be hard to know what to do in many situations. This is where modern day etiquette comes in.
For instance, I remember when the father of a good friend died. I had never met him, and my friend and the rest of the family were overseas. I immediately began wondering what the right response would be. Sending a card? Having flowers delivered? Would an email be the right thing to do?*
[* The short answer is – maybe. Email can be quite impersonal, particularly in a situation like this, so it should be used only as a very last resort. Donations can be made to specific charities at the request of the family in lieu of flowers, and/or a card with a heartfelt note is always appreciated.]
People also wonder about what is correct these days when it comes to happier occasions. If someone has already given a gift for a bridal shower, does that affect giving a gift for the happy couple-to-be? Do people still send thank-you notes after receiving wedding presents, and if so, what is the appropriate time line for them to be sent? (We address questions like these in The Finishing Touch – Session 2.)
Whenever people assume that there’s no need for etiquette in the modern age, I politely disagree. We used to have firm rules that told us exactly what to do, and when and how to do it – not unlike driving. A red light meant stop. A green light meant go. In Canada, we drive on the right side of the road, and in other parts of the Commonwealth, it’s reversed (more on geographic variance in etiquette in a future post, I promise.)
These days, etiquette gives us a little nudge in the right direction when we are unsure about the best route to take to an unfamiliar destination. Think about it as GPS, if you will – etiquette can suggest a path to take, re-direct you if you’ve taken a wrong turn, and figure out how to get to where you need to be, even if you’ve gone completely off course. Why wouldn’t we want to have this tool in our arsenal in the year 2017?