From table manners to the world of business, etiquette is the social architecture behind how we interact with the world, and ourselves
Sarah Rose // Features Editor
From the moment we step outside ourselves, the world is writ large with rules of engagement. To avoid the gaze of people crossing paths, or to smile and nod. To sit next to the window of a 6am commuter SkyTrain or stand. Small streaks of rain pierce the skyline as the train climbs over the bridge, where the city often fragments into two worlds cleaved apart by morning fog. We catch stray breath against the windowpane, and trace a finger through the condensation, revealing the sunrise emerging behind white noise. Is that too many germs, or just childish faux pas—maybe both. Don’t answer the phone, and hope the music isn’t too loud—all that hidden programming of knowing when to leave, how to leave, where to go and what to do; this is the world of social architecture.
The Skytrain is just one small isolated space where the language of etiquette is confluent. Etiquette is the cornerstone of social architecture, it’s the social code weaved into every interaction in society. Subsequently, it extends far beyond how to stand on the SkyTrain, table manners, the tyranny of a “maybe” RSVP and basic conduct. “[Etiquette] is a whole world view and system of values,” says Catherine Newman, author of How To Be A Person. As an etiquette columnist, Newman is tangentially related to an elite class of those devoted to studying the social code: social architects.
Social architects such as Dr. Lew Bayer, director of the In Good Company finishing school, describes herself as “one of only 14 master civility trainers in the world.” It gives off an air of arcane knowledge and mysticism, but beneath the veneer of polish it reads like any other moderately useful self-help book. The difference is in those who take that attitude and figure out how to wrench it into weaponized realism. The wildly popular book 12 Rules For Life offers one such example.
Unlike Dr. Bayer who believes that in “choosing civility, people find their best self,” and that civility is “a continuous acknowledgement of one’s responsibility to ease the experience of others.” 12 Rules For Life author Jordan Peterson doesn’t stop at hopeful platitudes like “make your bed” and “sit up straight.” Rather, he uses these simple personal etiquettes as a Trojan horse for his ethical maxims by weaving evolutionary psychology into social Darwinism as an easily digestible mythos. Any disaffected human worried about how to interact with the world simply needs to look at several eons of natural selection instructing primates on their posture. Then pay attention to the hierarchy. It’s The Art of the Deal meets The Old Testament, which isn’t as far from the truth as it possibly could be.
The word etiquette is derived from French culture, meaning “little ethics,” and the doyenne of American etiquette is the infamous Emily Post. The daughter of an architect, like Newman, Post began her career as a columnist in the early 20th century and eventually published five novels including a book on etiquette. Not just any book. Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home is considered the book informing how we view North American etiquette today. Post’s rules are, what she describes, designed for the “best society,” which allegedly isn’t a reference to the socialite chaste to which Post belonged, but instead to “those who are not of exalted wealth but gentlefolk with good form in speech, charm, and manner and instinctive consideration for the feeling of others.”
Etiquette then goes on almost in its entirety to describe the social architecture for royalty, presidents and socialites like herself. Perhaps without intending to, Post reinforced the idea that people should know their place in the societal hierarchy. Arthur M. Schlesinger once said that literature like Post’s work on etiquette was a part of “the leveling-up process of democracy,” an attempt to resolve the conflict between the democratic ideal and the reality of a class system.
In fact, learning and using this arcane knowledge serves a hierarchical, class related function. In that it differentiates those who are “superior” from the rest of the “common people.”
Dr. Bayer’s company Civility Experts Inc. is one of a handful of companies designed systematically for deftly crafting businesses in the art of civility. Vancouver etiquette trainer and coach Carey McBeth knows etiquette dominates the modern business landscape— and it starts with table manners.
Many employers hold interviews over meals, “they want to see how[candidates]
handle themselves in social situations,” McBeth said in The Vancouver Sun. Most of her clients are those looking to get ahead in the business world. According to McBeth, when 60 per cent of business is done over a meal, there’s an unwritten need to be wired into the social code. “Knowledge is 15 per cent of why you’re going to get the job. The rest is social skills.” She explains how even sending handwritten thank you notes is strategic. Unlike an email, those cards stay on a desk and do the marketing work for 7 to 10 days.
These rules of engagement translate precisely to business. They’re designed for status-seeking, upwardly mobile people. Particularly those in the upper-middle class, where knowing how to stir a cup of coffee properly can land one a high-powered career.
Few, if any, powerful political figures have discussed the use of etiquette, except perhaps, for none other than Leon Trotsky. Trotsky wrote extensively on manners and etiquette, describing them as a “necessary lubricant in daily relations.” He went on to argue about the topic at length in Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper. Here, he painted the bigger picture: to him manners were an essential part of an enlightenment project. It was essential for leaders and those in power to transform Russia’s pre-revolutionary culture, rooted in a deep contrast of servitude and aristocratic privilege and move towards a more humanist direction.
“As society changes, our manners have to change as we adapt to the world around us,” writes Lisa Grotts, founder of the Golden Rules Gal. Over the years, some manners have evolved in the kind of humanistic spirit Trotsky envisioned. Things such as not overtly assuming the genders of strangers or subtle body language rules to maintain women in submissive roles are largely eschewed. But the fact remains there is still a social code and architects behind it, and subsequently, people are getting left behind. Particularly neurodivergent people who naturally don’t align with the rules of etiquette.
Neurodivergent conditions like autism or ADHD are often marked by “social difficulties” and yet for many of these people, that concept is flat out perplexing. Their social struggles might indeed be disabling, but only in so far as how their interactions are measured with, and by, neurotypical people.
“Without eye contact, you can’t communicate properly, and looking at someone when they’re speaking increases understanding and shows respect,” Grotts said. Ask anyone with autism, and I doubt they would agree direct eye contact is required to convey an idea. Yet, McBeth advises making eye contact 40 to 60 per cent of the time. Perhaps an even bigger issue is these very same neurotypical people’s reluctance to interact with those with one foot outside the social code—with those who are different.
Etiquette consultant Margaret Page explains that the first rule of etiquette is kindness. Good manners really only develop once a personal standard is set for ourselves, rather than a basis for judging others. Nature is full of novelty, with difference, forever beyond the grasp of a wholistic understanding because it’s more than a collection of rules to follow. Kindness begins with challenging our assumptions about what is normal, what’s necessary, and what’s desirable to live well.
Like anything inhabiting nature, the human body is host to an ecosystem not unlike the ones we occupy. Evolution is a succinct way of saying we’re an embodied, breathing work of art constantly changing. Neurological variations are a vital part of not just nature, but our social landscape. It’s not up to the individual to bestow upon themselves the right to decide which characteristics are worth keeping. Yet, failing to comply with these standards is automatically seen at best, as abnormal, and at worst, as less human.
Depending on how far back we look in history, and where, something like epilepsy might’ve either been the mark of a shaman, or demonic possession. Disability, like atypical, is a complicated word more often defined by societal expectations than by the individuals themselves. Every mind is valuable the way every tree is valuable to a forest regardless of how we classify it’s supposed functioning. No one thinks about changing the way bees dance in maps or the syntax of sperm whales, we only want to learn it like a second language.
The way to love nature is not by assigning a condition to it, dressing it business casual, or making it sit still when speaking. It’s studying exactly what it is and then realizing we’re looking at a mirror, not a painting.