Etiquette Rules We Should Never Have Abandoned
Good manners evolve, but they never go out of style. If you're skipping these social niceties, your manners may need a makeover.
RSVP’ing in a timely manner
Maybe it’s because people receive so many invitations or perhaps it’s because invites have become so casual, often sent via email or social media, but the fact is that RSVP’ing has become as rare as men removing their hats indoors. While the hat issue isn’t a big deal anymore, failing to respond to an invite is not just a breach of good etiquette but a breach of basic humanity, says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of the Protocol School of Texas. “People need to buy food, plan entertainment, and other things that take significant cost and time,” she says. “Not RSVP’ing or waiting until the last minute makes the host’s job infinitely harder.” People often stress about sending a negative reply, which is one reason they may delay, but it’s a lot easier to do if you know the best way to say no to an invitation.
Taking off your sunglasses indoors
Go anywhere these days and you’re likely to see a variety of shaded eyes, even in places like movie theatres. Is everyone nursing a hangover, or is it just one more sign of our avoidance of others? “Unless you’re an A-list celebrity, don’t be shady: Remove your sunglasses when greeting someone,” says Lisa Grotts, etiquette expert, founder of Golden Rules Gal, and author of A Traveler’s Passport to Etiquette. “Without eye contact, you can’t communicate properly, and looking at someone when they’re speaking increases understanding and shows respect.” If you’re outdoors and have sensitive eyes, it’s fine to put your sunglasses back on after saying hello, but skip the shades when you’re indoors.
Returning phone calls
Etiquette changes with the times and technology has forced some interesting compromises in this area—but not all of them are good. Take, for instance, the common practice of returning a phone call with a text. “Many people don’t like to talk on the phone and feel it is an inconvenience, but if someone has made the effort to call you, it is polite to call them back—with an actual phone call,” Gottsman says. “It’s easier to hear context, and complicated or sensitive information can be shared better via voice.”
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Waiting in line
Who isn’t in a hurry these days? Yet too many people feel like they’re entitled to special treatment and, as a result, skip basic kindergarten-level niceties like waiting in line and taking turns. Being late or impatient doesn’t mean you’re special and you get to cut to the front of the line, Grotts says. Ironically, people who jump the line are often the ones who get the most upset when others take a shortcut. The bottom line about lines: Remember the golden rule, and treat others the way you’d like to be treated.
Holding the elevator
Too many people have developed an unfortunate wariness of strangers or have an attitude of “not my problem” when they see someone else struggling in public. However, as long as safety isn’t an issue, you should still adhere to basic niceties, like holding the elevator door for someone running down the hall, Gottsman says. “Many of us don’t even realize someone needs help because we’re looking at our phones,” she explains. “You should try to be mindful of others around you.”
Being on time
Punctuality is a seriously underrated skill in today’s society. Even as things get more efficient and technology gets more accurate, it seems that we humans are finding more and more reasons to be late. This is very disrespectful, Grotts says. “When you are late, it says that your time is more important than everyone else’s,” she explains.
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Opening doors for men and women
Strange views of chivalry abound, but politeness is not gender-specific, Gottsman says. “Everyone appreciates not having a door slammed in their face, and it’s so easy to do,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you do that small kindness?” She adds that it’s equally important for the person for whom the door is being opened to acknowledge the kindness with a thank you or even just a nod. Note: You don’t have to hold open the door for the next 30 people.
Remembering the little words
“Please.” “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” “May I?” These simple words matter, Gotts says. “These basic social niceties can never be said too much and are the foundation of politeness,” she explains. “There is no excuse not to use them.”
Asking permission first
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but we live in a society that seems to go by the motto “it’s better to apologize than ask permission.” People often assume consent and act accordingly—whether that’s hugging someone, posting a picture of them online, or snagging a taste of their food. “It’s polite to always ask permission before doing something to or for someone else,” says Bonnie Tsai, founder and director of Beyond Etiquette. It doesn’t need to take a lot of time or involve a formal contract. Getting permission can be as simple as asking, “Are you OK with this?”
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Sending thank-you notes
Everyone loves to be thanked, but hardly anyone seems to remember to do it these days. “Any way of saying thank you is wonderful, including a text or email,” Gottsman says. “But the gold standard is still a handwritten thank-you card.” Seeing your handwriting is meaningful to your loved ones, as is knowing that you took the time to do this. Plus, many people like to save these cards, and that’s much harder to do with an electronic thank-you.
Minding your own business
Gossip makes for excellent television but terrible real-life relationships, and that fact is truer than ever in this age of constant information and instant communication. “You need to be so careful about what you say, both in public and private, about others,” says Gottsman. “Not only is it polite to not speak about others behind their backs, but it protects you as well. Remember: The Internet is forever!”
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Introducing others is quickly becoming a lost art, yet making introductions is one of the most important social skills of everyday life, Grotts says. “Even when you have forgotten someone’s name, it’s better to ask them than to let that person stand in a group and be ignored,” she says. “Good manners are all about making others feel comfortable, no matter the situation.”
Standing when greeting someone new
When being introduced to someone new or greeting someone who’s coming into a group, it’s polite to stand to acknowledge them—and this is true for both men and women, Tsai says. “It shows that you are welcoming and also indicates respect,” she explains.
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Apologizing, sincerely, in person
Watch any news channel and you’ll see many examples of the new trend of faux-apologizing—pretending to say you’re sorry while not actually accepting any responsibility or changing your behavior. This is not only terrible etiquette but also counterproductive, Gottsman says. “If you’ve made a mistake, the right thing to do is to own up to it and apologize, sincerely, in person,” she explains. If you’re too far away for this to be feasible, a phone call or video chat is the next best thing. Apologizing over text almost never goes well since it’s too difficult to read tone and intent, she adds.
Not taking off your shoes in public
If you’ve been on an airplane or in a restaurant lately, you might have noticed a new trend toward shoelessness. In our increasingly casual society, people are feeling more free to put their shoeless (aka dirty, smelly, and gnarly-looking) feet up on benches, seats, armrests, and even tables. “Absolutely do not take off your shoes in a public place unless you are instructed to by your host,” Gottsman says. “It’s just gross.”
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Using good table manners
“Having proper table manners is sometimes seen as being ‘stuffy’ or ‘stuck up,’ but nothing could be further from the truth,” Gottsman says. “The whole point of practicing good manners at the table is to ensure everyone has a positive, comfortable dining experience.” It’s not as tricky as you think.
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Pulling out the good china
People used to keep a set of “special” or “fancy” dishes that they pulled out to make a meal feel extra special, say for a holiday or for important company. These days, most people have one set of dishes and eat off whatever is handy, sometimes standing over the sink with the pot. “Be polite to yourself and others by creating an enjoyable dining experience,” Gottsman says. “What are you waiting for? Eating with loved ones—and that includes yourself—always qualifies as a special meal.”
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