Manners and Etiquette

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MANNERS AND ETIQUETTE go hand in hand, but are not the same. Etiquette is a set of rules dealing with exterior form. Manners are an expression of inner character. According to Emily Post, perhaps the most influential American writer on etiquette in the twentieth century, "manners are made up of trivialities of deportment which can be easily learned if one does not happen to know them; manner is personality—the outward manifestation of one's innate character and attitude toward life." Manners are common sense, a combination of generosity of spirit and specific know-how. Rules of etiquette are the guiding codes that enable us to practice manners.

Most commentators would agree with Emily Post and add that rather than being stiff, rigid rules, proper etiquette is meant to help people get along with each other and avoid conflict. Respect, kindness, and consideration form the basis of good manners and good citizen-ship. Etiquette becomes the language of manners. Rules of etiquette cover behavior in talking, acting, living, and moving; in other words, every type of interaction and every situation.


Proper codes of behavior have been a concern for thousands of years. The first known book on appropriate behavior was a guide that Ptah-hotep, a government official in Egypt in 2500 b.c., wrote for his son. Several Greeks and Romans wrote behavior guides, including Aristotle, Horace, Cicero, and Plutarch. In thirteenth-century Europe, the chivalric code established precisely and minutely the proper behavior for knights regarding the Christian church, their country, and the treatment of women. During the reign of Louis XIV (1638–1715) in France, the term "etiquette" came into use. Based on the French word "ticket," which denoted the proper paths for nobility to follow in the gardens of the palace of Versailles, the rules of etiquette came to provide a daily, very precise list of functions related to times, places, and proper dress and behavior. Thus, proper etiquette came to be associated with the upper classes and those trying to emulate their behavior.

Nevertheless, proper manners were a concern even of leaders in the more democratic society of eighteenth-century America. At age fourteen, George Washington transcribed his own "Rules of Civility." William Penn published collections of maxims on personal and social conduct. Benjamin Franklin's very popular Poor Richard's Almanac was full of comments on proper behavior. During the nineteenth century, hundreds of books on etiquette were published in the United States. These were designed for the common person and schoolchildren as well as the upper classes. One of the most popular, which has survived to the twenty-first century, is the Youth's Educator for Home and Society, published in 1896, which covered a wide variety of situations, including the usual—parties, traveling, weddings, parents and children, letter writing, and personal hygiene—but also, cycling.

As society has changed, so have rules for proper behavior. After World War I (1914–1918), society became more open as roles of women began to change. Many believed that proper manners would become less important. In 1922, Emily Post published the most popular book on etiquette for society, business, politics, and home and family. Her book became the model for thousands of others since then. The sixteenth edition of Etiquette was published in 1997. Instead of decrying the lack of etiquette among Americans, Post applauded their youthful enthusiasm and sought only to refine it. She claimed that improvements in taste in home decoration were evidence of progress. She also pointed out other examples of improvements; for instance, unlike earlier times, weddings no longer had to be set by noon for fear that the bridegroom would no longer be sober after that hour.

There are still many writers on etiquette and manners. Some of the most popular include Miss Manners, or Judith Martin, who presents her comments in several types of media; Letitia Baldridge, who was particularly influential during the late 1900s; Sue Fox, who joined the "dummies" series with her Etiquette for Dummies (1999); and Emily Post's great granddaughter-in-law, Peggy Post.

The Present

Many manners commentators agree that although society and manners changed before World War II (1939–1945), the changes since then have amounted to nearly a revolution, and writers have created etiquette rules for the new situations. One way to describe the difference is that rules of etiquette are no longer for how to behave properly in a restricted society, but to provide knowledge of ways to put others at ease. Few people now have to deal with servants, mansions, or elaborate entertainment, but they still have to deal with difficult or unknown situations in business or the community. American society has also become much less formal. One simple yet indicative example of the change is the proper greeting. Instead of the formal "How do you do," "hello" is now considered appropriate. Also, earlier it was not considered proper for a girl or woman to walk alone. Etiquette delineated when she should be accompanied by a woman her age, by an older woman, or by a man. Today, the advice not to walk alone would be a safety concern.

Probably the greatest change since the 1960s has been in the relationship between men and women toward greater equality. Lord Chesterfield once declared that no provocation whatever could justify any man not being civil to any woman. "It was due them and the only protection women had against a man's superior strength." Men are no longer expected to protect women in every instance; rather, they are to treat them equally and with the consideration due every person. However, as folk singer Joan Baez is credited with saying, "If I have a baby in one arm and a guitar in the other, I'm not going to say no to a man who offers to open the door for me."

There are etiquette books and Web sites for nearly every subject imaginable. The arena of most concern appears to be the proper manners and etiquette for weddings. A large bookstore may carry over 200 titles related to wedding planning, the event, and the honeymoon. Other titles reflect changes in American society and cover everything: singles in the city, all sports (not just cycling), proper computer "netiquette" and use of cellphones, and multicultural situations. The coverage demonstrates the changes in society but also demonstrates the continued concern about how to behave appropriately. As many people believe, good manners may be dead, but certainly the curiosity and concern about rules of etiquette are alive and well.


Baldridge, Letitia. Letitia Baldridge's Complete Guide to the NewManners for the 90s. New York: Rawson Associates, 1990.

Fox, Sue. Etiquette for Dummies. Indianapolis, Ind.: IDG Books, 1999.

Post, Emily. Etiquette. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1922.

Diane NagelPalmer