A business student attending one of my etiquette classes questioned why etiquette, as a set of guidelines for making events and occasions go smoothly, is so important. After all, following rules of polite behavior and manners could be used merely for impression and a person might have far less than moral intentions in mind.
The student was asking for a connection to be made between etiquette and ethics. And there definitely is a connection.
My chosen mentor, Judith Martin, tells us in her book, A Citizen’s Guide to Civility: “Together they preside over the fundamental beliefs and needs that we hold . . . Morality includes the concept of the sacredness of the person . . . while manners includes the dignity of the person. Morals and manners share such concepts as compassion, respect, and toleration. . .”
For example, lying and cheating are ethical choices as well as violations of appropriate etiquette. These behaviors are of a moral nature, but when practiced, show a lack of respect for those persons lied to or cheated.
Ethical behavior is always a question of what is right, and the how to’s, when to’s, and what to’s of etiquette attune us to what is called for in certain situations – actions that are recognizably respectful. If you are walking behind someone going into a store and he unknowingly drops his wallet in front of you, you are ethically bound to return the wallet. Etiquette ensures that you return the wallet in a helpful, friendly way.
Honesty and respect are the ethical components of etiquette. Etiquette assists ethical action in that there are ways of couching and phrasing that are needed to smooth out difficult moments.
As an example, at an airport the person checking bags at the counter becomes annoyed with a passenger because he hasn’t attached the tags on his luggage. He corrects the customer in a tone of voice that is not friendly. Feelings are obvious; the service agent feeling very correct, and the customer feeling offended. A little functional etiquette would go a long way, and clearly the person most in need of civility is the service representative. Unfortunately, the customer walks away with a definite conclusion about the airline.
Both manners and morality should be a part of the institutions in which humans live and work - family, school, church, companies and other organizations. Etiquette exists to help us see, at the margin, what should be done to keep interactions and relationships harmonious.
In the situation described above, had empathy and respect been considered, the conversation would go similar to this:
Character, decency and honesty are qualities that are necessary in all aspects of our world. This is the infrastructure of the business of life. Peter Drucker once stated, “Without integrity, one cannot inspire the confidence of others; and no man, no matter how brilliant, is able to perform his job without the support of others. The conductor can only conduct if there’s an orchestra willing to respond.”
Both ethics and etiquette help us respectfully interact with each other. Both call on us to act morally. After all, there is no polite way to act immorally.