Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Etiquette: adapt, improvise or overcome?

According to Wikipedia, etiquette is a code that influences expectations for social behavior according to contemporary conventional norms within a society, social class, or group.

I love etiquette. But my problem is that aparently the etiquette that I adher to seems to belong to a different time or a different society than the one in which I find myself. I often have a vague feeling that this was the case, but today it struck home sharply after visiting of all things, an etiquette blog.
I stumbled over this blog (to which I will not link in this post for obvious reasons) following a little blog rabbit trail, as I do often if I have some spare time.

Unfortunately the first post was rather dissapointing to me. The writer had a very bad experience with someone over a swap. From what I read she had every right to be utterly dissapointed. Unfortunately she then proceeded not just to tell about this dissapointing experience, which I can understand, but instead of advising readers how to graciously handle such dissapointment she dragged the lady at the other end of the dissapointment through the mud in capitals, naming her by name, professional connections and allowing her anger to shine through in every word.

While I certainly think she was entitled to her anger, I wonder if her blog was the right forum for it. It's why I agonised over making this post and how to write it. Am I not guilty of the same thing in writing about something unpleasant here?
I think it's important for us to be honest in our blogs, and not to pretend we live a sugar and cream life in which our feet never touch the ground to brush a pebble. On the other hand, I think it is very important not to use our blogs to point a finger. The smallest child is taught that pointing a finger at someone is rude. We can be very honest about our experiences without, and this is where I find the important difference, embarrasing someone publicly. I do not write this post out of anger to the author of that blog, her post was just a little feather of inspiration so to speak, to put some dillema's in front of you.

When you have been raised a certain way, how much can and should you adapt to the culture around you? I have moved to the US three years ago and now in raising my son, I am trying to find the right balance between adapting to my new home country and the way I was raised.

For example, it is easy for me to still remain true to my mothers dictate never to embarrass someone else in public, because by doing so you will automatically embarras yourself. "You can not throw mud and keep your hands clean."

What is not so easy are matters more related to custom. Names for example. I grew up in the strict conviction that it is rude to address someone by their first name unless permission is given or exchanged.
You introduce someone as: "Please meet my friend, John Smith". And the correct answer is: "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Smith". Now, if Mr. Smith wants for a less formal rapport, he can say: "Oh please call me John". And from then on the title can be dispersed with.
The 'higher ranking' person is the one who is entitled to set the tone of an acquaintance. He or she is allowed to decide the level of formality. Higher ranking is not a matter of inherited titles, unless anyone has them. It can be determined by relationship. If someone is in a shop or restaurant as a customer, they have the higher rank. If people meet on equal footing, the eldest has higher rank, between a man and a woman, the woman enjoys the priviledge of higher rank.

I find it utterly annoying when people immediately address me with my first name. The first time it happened was when I was boarding an airplane and I nearly stood still to gape in shock. Well, that is a literary exageration, but the incident has still not left my mind years after the fact, so that speaks for itsself.

My question is now, should I adapt, or insist? Should I start introducing myself as 'Eva' instead of with my full name? How much of this is culturally determined? And how much of it is true politeness? Of course I will never insist upon is to the point of someone elses' discomfort. The perky flight attendant never knew that I spend the rest of the two hour flight mulling over the way she addressed me.

When I leave the house for a certain occasion, I like to dress up for it, whether it is a meeting or going to chuch, there are certain standards that I adher to. But, aside from church, I find mysef often feeling 'overdressed' since every occasion seems to call for jeans or slacks and truely beautiful outfits seem to have been deferred to weddings. Should I adapt? Is it custom? Culture? Or just general sloppiness? Am I relic from another time and would it be the polite thing to just adjust to the times? Or should I 'proudly but quietly hold up a standard', as the expression goes?

I am actually confused as to what the most kind and polite thing to do is in situations like these. And I want to try and clear up parts of my own confusion, since I am trying to train a young gentleman under my roof. He has an excellent example in his American father who has what I would consider oldfashioned European manners. But are those truelyEuropean? Or are they applicable in every Western society?

Can you help me out, ladies? What should I do?


Rachel said...

Please, hold to your standards! Too many have caved into the "demands" of a society that craves the familiar, the laid back, the unstructured--the uncultured.

I would rather my children have the manners to succeed in life--and I don't think potentially offending someone because of lax behavior is going to help them one bit (insert a sad shake of the head here, please!). I'd rather them be a bit more formal, than too informal.

As far as being uncharitable in pointing out the misdeeds and impoliteness of others...well, your mother was absolutely correct. Between gossip, possible slander, and other negative words I can use...its just UGLY. And while the initial incident might have been one that justified her anger and frustration, to air that publicly..well. It speaks very poorly of her innermost self.

Manners and etiquette are not a veneer or a mask one pulls on and off---they should--they need--to be a habit. A deeply ingrained habit, that forms the soul.

Good luck with your son!

NYLass said...

Oh, do I know what you mean. It can be so awkward, especially with children (mine or theirs) to be around people who... were raised differently.

The question that I would put to you (if I can be so bold) is do you want to be like the people/ person in question? Do you want you son to be like them? Does the person(s) in question model the behavior that you want to train and teach as proper? If the answer is yes, then adaptation is an option, but if the answer is no, then... well, doesn't that clear up the issue?

When I look at it that way I find that I usually (not always) end up answering my own question.
Hope that Helps,

Wendy said...

This definitely can be tricky -- as Americans, we tend to be very casual, which is not always a good thing. It seems sometimes, especially among children and younger people, that good manners are becoming a lost art.

Personally, we hold our children to a high standard regardless of what's acceptable in our culture. To me, politeness and good manners are just part of loving others as ourselves, and that's what we try to teach in our home. I always feel like it's a sad commentary that people are so impressed that my children do say "please" and "thank you."

And don't even get me started on all the children who feel free to call adults by their first names! ;)

faerieeva said...

Sorry for taking so long.

NYLass, your idea of questioning do I want my child to grow up like these people is often my dilemma, especially when it comes to matters of custom. For example, I have made some absolutely lovely, warmhearted, friendly and otherwise very polite people here, who immediately address others on first name basis.

It's easy to keep to universal truths as not licking your knife or being kind, but the more layed back, casual lifestyle that Wendy speaks of rubs me the wrong way, even when it is not culturally rude here.