Why learn etiquette?

I recently found myself thinking that it might be helpful to seek out resources on etiquette. The exact reason I was thinking this escapes me, so this post is an attempt to rebuild that train of thought.

Generally I want to be kind to people. Maybe if I’m in some kind of mean or crabby or otherwise negative mood, I don’t feel like it as much, though I’ll still try. But usually, I do have a genuine desire to be kind & pleasant to people if I can. This includes avoiding awkward situations that would make someone uncomfortable, where it is prudent to do so.

Social interactions are complex, and usually there are more things in the picture than just “be kind”. You always have your own reactions and emotions going on that need to be duly processed & managed. You might have other goals you want to achieve depending on the context, like to look good or have fun. You also have awareness of other people’s emotions and goals, and those in turn might affect yours.

All these factors mean it’s sometimes hard to decide what to do, especially in novel situations with unfamiliar details. Suppose a friend made you a weird necklace or something, and you don’t really like it or it doesn’t go with your clothes, but they’re clearly hoping you’ll wear it at this event. How do you handle it? Obviously it’s okay to not get it right all the time, but there might be a simple, practical solution to a scenario like this you just haven’t considered.

I think a good etiquette book could play a really helpful role here. You could think of it as a stock of these practical solutions, applied to many different scenarios. By reading and understanding these examples, you could build up your own intuition about how to come up with your own solutions on the fly.

So I’m not looking to etiquette for a list of rules that tell me how to act in particular situations. You can’t really expect a rule list to apply very well to the messy realities of real life. Rather, I would like to learn etiquette as a set of templates for considerate behavior that I can adapt and riff on.

Etiquette as an established, agreed-upon set of rules is not especially relevant in my culture. Like anywhere else, there are certainly implicit cultural norms, but many things are much more casual now than they maybe once were. There’s not really a “rulebook for polite society” that everyone’s aware of or anything like that.

Inasmuch as it makes people less constrained & stifled in their behavior, that seems like a good thing. But I think we could use a form of etiquette as positive guidance. Most of us want to be kind, but with such a complex social world, we could sometimes use some help knowing how to do it effectively.

Have you ever studied etiquette? Do you participate in a culture or subculture with an established etiquette? Do you know of any resources for learning about etiquette? Let me know your thoughts at my Ctrl-C email: gome ​@ ​ctrl-c.club.