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The Reason for Etiquette
I am not one of those people who rejoices in etiquette. I'm one of those people who avoided a certain person at family reunions for about 15 years because I was certain I had forgotten to send someone a thank you card after my wedding.

I'm committed to etiquette enough to feel guilty when I don't do it, but not committed enough to follow through. It's the worst of both worlds.

routing around people obstructionsImage by cc511 via Flickr

Nevertheless, I do believe that simple politeness is one of the cornerstones of our society. Saying please and thank you; deferring to those who are older than you; offering to help a young mom struggling with a stroller while trying to enter a door, or an older person struggling with a walker. These are the things that keep our culture functioning.

They serve another purpose, too. They remind us that we are not the centre of the universe, and that others deserve our attention and deference at times simply because they, too, are people. I must admit to getting a little bit teed off when clerks who are waiting on me at a store won't look me in the eye, don't say thank you, and treat me as if I'm an inconvenience. It's important to be polite to those who are around you because it's how we keep everything running smoothly.

And it even goes deeper than that. Our society has devolved recently so that we don't just have political differences; we tend to dehumanize the other side. They're not wrong; they're evil. They're beyond the pale. And when we start thinking of the other side as evil, then it's easy to believe that they don't deserve common courtesy. In fact, they deserve much worse than that. They should be lectured, hectored, or ostracized. And we see this in much of political discourse today, even just at dinner parties.

I was reminded of that when I saw this picture today, which is making quite a stir in my home, Canada:

Taken yesterday at the nuclear summit, Obama is lecturing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in front of reporters, about something.

I don't want to get into the politics of it; that's not the point of what I'm trying to say (except to point out that this won't work out well for Obama in the long run; note Harper's fist. He's not happy). The point is this: it is tradition that one does not lecture or insult the democratically elected leader of an allied nation in public, in the same way that it is a tradition that one does not bring up politics or money at a family Thanksgiving dinner, or insult a host's politics, or question their religion. You just don't.

You give them the benefit of the doubt and you give them the courtesy to save face and you keep your thoughts to yourself until a more appropriate time to bring them up.

Yet I have found lately that these common courtesies are being thrown out the window. The only reason I can think of that President Obama would feel free to harangue Harper is that Obama truly thinks he is superior in some way, and that superiority means that he is no longer subject to the rules of etiquette (or perhaps he thinks that Harper is so far inferior that he is no longer deserving of the rules of etiquette). Etiquette helps us from becoming prideful, and it helps us from dehumanizing or judging others too harshly, because it forces us to act humanely.

Recently, though, when I was shopping, my youngest daughter said, "thank you" loudly to the cashier as we left and then said to me, "Honestly, Mommy, you never say thank you." She took me aback. I thought I always said thank you. But I guess sometimes I mumble, or if I'm in a hurry, I don't.

Increasingly I think we're getting lazy about such matters of etiquette. And while they may not fall into the same category as the picture above, if we don't take care of the little things, we're going to find ourselves in a mess of our own making. Our lack of humility will be apparent to all, and we will become boors.

So I want to make it a practice to say "thank you" more. I recently bought some cards and I am going to start writing thank you cards--even to people that I don't always particularly appreciate (in fact, perhaps especially to those I don't always appreciate when I see that they have done something worthwhile). It's part of recognizing the good in others, and recognizing the lack in ourselves. That's what healthy societies are built on, and when we forget that, and just rely on our own self-image, we are heading on a slippery slope indeed.


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At 9:19 AM , Blogger Terry @ Breathing Grace said…

That picture of the presidents is absolutely astounding!

I'll avoid political posturing as well and say I agree with you. I often lament the way our culture has thrown away practices that used to be considered common courtesy.


At 9:38 AM , Blogger Mrs W said…

You know, I like manners, but thank-you cards is one thing I just do not understand at all.

I have found that here in the USA, a verbal thank-you to someone is not enough. In Australia, it's more than enough. Then, people gossip about how ungrateful you are if you do not send them a card, even though they live locally and you already said thank-you. So basically, when they give you a gift etc, they are demanding a gift (a thank-you card) back. A gift should be given because you care about someone, not in order to get something back.

I have friends here that were born in the USA that say the same thing. One of them told me she knew the grief I'd gotten about the cards (and I had written them anyway, and gave them to my husband to hand out, and he forgot and lost it and I didn't know, and he admitted it to the person, who said he was lying and that his ungrateful wife just hadn't bothered to write one and he was trying to cover it up) that it's wrong for people to give a gift expecting a card back because that means they want to trade a gift for a gift which makes it a trade, not a gift. She specifically said NOT to send her a card, because the fact that I was using the item was all the satisfaction she needed.

I've never understood how if you say a verbal thank-you, that that's not good enough, to have to write it out on a fancy card for it to be acceptable.


At 9:39 AM , Blogger Mrs W said…

Oh and we got a thank-you card once that thanked us for going out to eat with a friend. How pathetic is that, that people feel pressured into MAILING you a card (when you are local) just because you spent time going out to eat with them!


At 9:55 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

Mrs. W.--

I know what you mean about the "thank you for the gift cards", but that's not really what I mean.

I mean recognizing when people are serving and going out of their way for you. Why not write a thank you note to the person who teaches your child Sunday School? Or to the worship leader in church who always helps you get into a peaceful and worshipful spirit? To the neighbour who is an encourager to you and always has cookies for your kids?

It's these things that make life so much better for us, and yet how often do we say thank you? I don't really care about thank you cards for gifts, but when I get a card from a parent thanking me for something I did with the youth of our church, that really matters to me. It's like someone else is noticing the effort I'm putting in, and reinforces the thought that "my labour is not in vain in the Lord."

That's what I want to spread around, and that's where I want to challenge myself--to find things to thank people for, even people who I may find at least a little annoying!


At 10:32 AM , Blogger Mrs W said…

Sheila, I could do your kind of thank-you card any day! :) Good idea.


At 10:47 AM , Blogger Kelly@Tabitha's Team said…

Great Reminder! I'm awful with those things.

It's too bad that politics has lost all civility. It's the ugliness that you point out that makes me not even want to be involved when I agree. We don't treat people like people anymore.


At 12:04 PM , Anonymous Laurel@FromMyHeartToYours said…

Canada you say? Sheila, are you IN Canada? I'm in northern British Columbia. :)

I love this post! My sweetie and I watched a whole documentary on manners recently and two things happened...I began to notice and am much more grateful for the man who holds the door for me; and I'm more conscious of saying thank you. We actually devote a time in our day of homeschool to work on these things.

I also LOVE what you say about thank you cards. They don't take that long to write and they can mean the world to someone. A hug isn't worth much if you have no idea it's yours! A thank you card can be like a hug...just appreciating those who serve quietly.

I will be back to this blog. Thanks for this post!


At 12:11 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Laurel, Yep, I'm in southeastern Ontario, a former Toronto girl who got out as soon as she could. Nice to "meet" you!

And thanks to everyone who has commented! I appreciate getting to know all of you, and like the feedback!


At 1:58 PM , Blogger Terry @ Breathing Grace said…

On the one hand, I totally agree with Mrs. W on the thank you notes-and not just because I tend to forget to send them,lol!

On the other hand, I think the idea of a thank you note lingers from a bygone era when people still wrote letters and handwritten appreciations or condolences were seen as marks of civility.

I send thank you notes because there is so little civility today and because I figure the world can never have too much gratitude in it. Nothing fancy,though. I have a $2 set of pretty blank cards. When I need to send a thank you, I jot a note and drop it in the mail.

Also, I think sending cards in the way Sheila suggested is a wonderful idea since people arefar less prone to hospiltality these days anyway.And far less generous,too, so many of us, unless it's Chrsitmas, our weddings, or with the births of babies don't get very many opportunities to send thank you notes anyway.


At 12:11 AM , Blogger e-Mom said…

My oh my... a huge topic. I'm a Canadian expat, now living in the US. I was raised in family where we were taught to send thank-you notes for everything and anything. Women love to receive notes, so I never thought much about it--and I quite enjoy it.

Living in the US, as a general rule, good manners and proper etiquette are considered too formal in everyday social situations. I've had to learn to loosen up and lighten up.

Moral of story... not only are we looking at a photograph of an unpopular US president, but one who was not raised with that lovely (but much joked about) Canadian value of politeness.

Social customs do vary from one country to the next. I guess that's why we have international diplomats!!!

I'm with you, Sheila. :~D


At 1:55 PM , Blogger glenda09 said…

The Thank You cards are a great idea that I just started doing myself. I have taught my son to say yes sir and yes ma'am etc. I did it since I was raised this way and you see some kids that are rude and such, I just didn't want my son to be that way. He is 4 now and still gets his sirs and ma'ams mixed up, but people get the idea. A few are just shocked when they hear him say "excuse me ma'am" and think it's the cutest. I have to remind my son we don't say those things to get a response from others but because we NEED to be that way. LOL you should see his face when he doesn't get a response. "Ma'am can I please have more drink please and thank you?" (my son) the waitress comes and give him more. You can see the look in my son's eyes like..aren't you going to say something? Didn't you hear me? He then says "Ma'am I saaaiidd plllleeaassee AND ttthhaankk yoouuu!"
Here I go again with the book so I will stop here. Great post! I wish I found your blog sooner!

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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