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Modern Etiquette: There Is Only One Rule To Remember

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I once had a boyfriend who had a pet peeve. This pet peeve was unique and contagious--I eventually caught a strain of it myself. It drove him visibly mad anytime someone would lament out loud, "It's such a shame that the world is getting worse." Whenever it's implied in his presence--in a condescending, "Kids today!" type voice--that people no longer have a sense of morality--that there's too much violence, and our leaders are corrupt and unjust--he'll launch into Human History 101. He'll cite several examples that illustrate human beings have always had shaky morals, the world has always been ultra-violent, and leaders, always corrupt.

I won't give you his whole tirade (it's pretty long), but I'll list a few book titles that drive the point home: Execution: The Guillotine, The Pendulum, The Thousand Cuts, The Spanish Donkey, and 66 Other Ways of Putting Someone to Death (St. Martin's Press) by Geoffrey Abbott, The Art of War in World History: From Antiquity to the Nuclear Age (University of California Press) by Gérard Chaliand A History of Rape: Sexual Violence in France from the 16th to the 20th Century (Polity) by Georges Vigarello and Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge (William Marrow) by Eleanor Herman.

We (I'm guilty of it too) have a tendency to romanticize the past and assume life before us was made up of rose petals, violins, princesses, and dashing knights. Damn you, Disney! Yet in the face of the aforementioned tomes (especially that one about execution), our world doesn't seem so terrible after all--in some cases it seems better and in others it seems right on par. I'm not suggesting that we give up and stop trying to put an end to violence, corruption, and haphazard ethics just because they have always been around. I am, however, suggesting that we resist the urge blame the here and now for being the first time in history that evildoers have had their say. On the flip side, as the bad has always existed so has the good. I've got books to prove that too: Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History (Cambridge University Press) by Lawrence J. Friedman and Mark D. McGarvie and Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross (Westview Press) by John E. Hutchinson.

The version of this peeve I caught has less to do with humanity on the grand scale and more to do with our everyday interactions. I tend to get wound up if similar, life-was-better-way-back-when accusations are made about etiquette. It is often stated that manners have fallen unscrupulously to the wayside in the early 21st-Century, and we don't know how to treat each other well anymore. I contest. I'd say the random acts of kindness I witness on a regular basis outweigh the random acts of rudeness. I've received thank-you notes, had doors opened for me, and exchanged countless pleases and thank yous just this past weekend.

What our ancestors had that we don't are rulebooks. They had to know the many policies of etiquette--from how to fold a piece of paper to how to unfold a napkin (there were very specific ways to do both). I, for one, am glad we don't have as many regulations--if you ever look at an antique etiquette book your eyes will widen at its ridiculousness. The etiquette guidelines of old had one purpose--to make everyone's life experience more enjoyable. The theory was if people had rules to follow and could interact accordingly whether at a dinner party or in line at the general store then the operation runs smoothly and no one has an unpleasant encounter. That is still a great theory, and one that's easy to keep minus the rules and regulations.

This edict will not be new to anyone, but it may be something you're not used to applying with regards to etiquette. If you're ever unsure how to act in a certain situation, put yourself in the other person's position. I mean really stop and do it. For example, if you receive an invitation, put yourself in the event planner's place. He or she would most likely want a head count sooner than later--you'll RSVP more quickly. If you honestly (honestly) put yourself in the place of the person you're dating, then you won't break up with them via text message. If you consider the other people in the theater then you'll turn off your cell phone (yes, even for sending messages.) This slight alteration of the golden rule is timeless and will keep us kind to each other as our everyday practices are in constant motion.

We humans are intrinsically self-centered creatures (yup, always have been) and the simple act of reminding ourselves that it's not all about me is what enables us to be polite and caring. As long as people have a desire to be treated well then, ideally, they will treat well, and the practice of etiquette will live on. Through the ages, there has always been that need, and therefore I think it's safe to say there always will be.