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John Daly: What Is Etiquette and Where Did It Originate?

By John Daly for The Key Class |

I am always amazed at how interested my students are to learn about the origin of etiquette. This came up in a class the other day when one of my students suggested, “I bet most people don’t know about how etiquette evolved. You should tell them in your Noozhawk column.” I thought, “Why not?” So, here’s how it all began.

It shouldn’t surprise you that the French started it all! Today’s etiquette began in the French royal courts in the 1600s and 1700s. Etiquette used to mean “keep off the grass.” When Louis XIV’s gardener at Versailles discovered that the aristocrats were trampling through his garden, he put up signs, or “etiquets,” to warn them off, but the dukes and duchesses walked right past the signs. Finally, the king himself had to decree that no one was to go beyond the bounds of the etiquets. Gradually, the meaning of etiquette was expanded to include the ticket to court functions that listed the rules of where to stand and what to do. Like language, etiquette evolved, but in a sense it still means “keep off the grass.” We watch for people to stay within certain bounds.

Before that, the first known etiquette book was written in 2400 B.C. by Ptahhotep. It reads as if it were prepared as advice for young Egyptian men climbing the social ladder of the day. One piece of advice was, “When sitting with one’s superior, laugh when he laughs.” Good manners have been around for a long time!

Even when people ate everything with their fingers, there were right and wrong ways to do it. Since ancient Rome, a lower-class person has grabbed food with all five fingers while one of breeding has used only three, leaving the ring and little finger out of it. Thus, the raised pinkie as a sign of elitism was born. We do not, however, dare raise our pinkies today because this is a sign of pretentiousness and a sure indicator to the well-bred that one does not know the right way to eat, or worse yet, is a shameless social climber.

According to Esther B. Aresty’s The Best Behavior, one of the earliest writers on civility was a “Friulian Italian,” Tommasino di Cerclaria, known for his work A Treatise on Courtesy, c 1200. He did some moralizing but did so lightly and deftly. For di Cerclaria, carrying tales, betraying secrets and vainglorious boasting were faults that bordered on sin. Pushing ahead of others in a crowd was also evidence of poor breeding.

Around 1290, a Milanese monk, Bonvicino da Riva, wrote what is probably the first book dealing solely with table etiquette, Fifty Courtesies of the Table. Many of Bonvicino’s rules were as elementary as those taught to little children today: do not loll at the table; do not gulp food and liquid in one mouthful; turn the head when coughing or sneezing; do not lick one’s fingers clean of food or pick the teeth with the fingers; do not stare at others’ plates; and do not talk with a mouthful of food. Some of the monk’s rules were timeless and enduring.
American etiquette grew from these origins. Based on consideration for others, they still apply today.

Would you believe that the first actual record of American etiquette was George Washington’s Rules of Civility? That’s right, straight from the “Father of our Country.” Later, in 1922, Emily Post published Etiquette—In Society, In Business, In Politics and At Home. Post, a self-proclaimed debutante-turned-writer/publisher, became a best-selling author and paved the way for others to preach good manners. She was followed by Amy Vanderbilt, who proclaimed herself “a journalist in the field of etiquette.” Vanderbilt wrote The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Guide to Etiquette.

Letitia Baldrige and Judith “Miss Manners” Martin followed. Martin’s newspaper columns resulted in her publishing several books, including Miss Manners’ Guide to Domestic Tranquility in 1999.

Peggy Post, Emily’s great-granddaughter, has followed in Granny’s footsteps with The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success. She also dispenses her rules of good behavior over the Internet.

Etiquette has expanded beyond society today. Many big businesses staff etiquette trainers to teach good manners to their executives. They teach everything from how to dress, how to act, how to eat and how to converse to writing good business letters. With globalization, executives are also being trained in respecting cultural differences to enhance their success rate in foreign markets.

With the number of etiquette books and coaches available, there’s no excuse for not learning how to make other people feel comfortable and respected. But, you know the saying, “You can drag a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” In order for you to drink in good manners, you have to realize what’s in it for you. If being successful in business, with people and in your life is part of your plan, then please start drinking in the information available to you to help you live your dreams.

John Daly is the founder and president of The Key Class, the go-to guide for job search success. Click here to learn more about The Key Class, get more information on Thursday night classes in Santa Barbara, or to get his book. Connect with The Key Class on Facebook. Follow John Daly on Twitter: @johndalyjrClick here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.




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