Etiquette practitioners: Beware the power of the dark side...
Perhaps there should be a warning: In rare cases, etiquette can be used against you. Miss Manners is about as pleased to issue warnings with her product as a tobacco company. In her case, the obligation is self-inflicted, and she is prompted to do so not only by her relentlessly impeccable standards (which can be a terrible nuisance) but by her satisfaction in being able to deliver the cure right after disclosing the complaint. Etiquette danger occurs when one person knowingly depends on the good manners of another to allow the natural consequences of a rudeness to pass unpunished. Or rather, it occurs when the second person allows himself to be imposed upon rather than challenging the deliberate bad manners of the first, because that in itself would be rude. Mind you, Miss Manners said that such cases are rare. She has never subscribed to the notion that etiquette requires one always to make others feel good even when they are up to no good. This popular belief accounts for much of the unpopularity of the practice of etiquette.
But for all its non-negotiable requirements, etiquette has never required anyone to be a patsy. Etiquette has always known how to fight back. The polite duel has been outlawed, but all kinds of weapons denunciations, snubs, rejections can be clothed in propriety and used, in a restrained and proper fashion, under legitimate provocation. No polite person would fail to disturb the complacency of someone making a bigoted remark, for example, or omit to lodge a complaint when seeing the helpless bullied. Etiquette also recognizes the legitimacy of self-defense against ill-treatment, provided the defense is not itself rude. “How dare you?” is a proper retort to an insult. When the polite person wavers and allows himself to be taken advantage of, it is because the offender, far from being rude, seems to be engaged in an act of friendship. Geared toward being no less kind in return, the mannerly victim reacts to acceptable surface behavior, rather than the outrageous assumption underlying it.
Examples: A house guest not only seems settled in indefinitely, but begins to feel at home enough to attempt to participate in family decisions and to offer suggestions as to how the household ought to be run. The borrower of a book, garden tool or chunk of money fails to return it; when the lender discreetly hints at the matter, the borrower acts hurt and insulted. An acquaintance makes unwanted social demands that are declined so often that the recipient begins to feel that he or she “owes” that person an acceptance. Professional advice is sought or professional opportunities are offered under social circumstances, where they appear as favors, which it would be ungracious to refuse. A perfect stranger uses compliments and other chatter to create an atmosphere in which allowing him or her the privileges of friendship demands on time and privacy seems appropriate.
In each of these cases, the burden of politeness seems to be on the innocent person. The solution requires recognizing the facts under that aura of politeness. One is under no obligation to share one's home, possessions, friendship, professional expertise or time for the asking. Little explanation is even required when stating one's rights: “I'm afraid I must have that money back,” “Call me at my office if you really want my advice” – even a nose-in-the-air snub when one is familiarly addressed by a stranger. Miss Manners promises not only that this will not be a violation of etiquette, but that it is a service to etiquette to defend it from evil usage. –By Miss Manners, aka Judith Martin, 1988
Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia