Dressed in your finest ballgown or tux, you sit down at an elaborately set table, an array of utensils spread out in front of you.
You take a seat, and a waiter soon appears, placing a plate in front of you for the salad course. Quick, which fork do you use?
A: The small salad fork to the left of the fish fork and dinner fork. This is because the salad is being served before the entrée; otherwise, the salad fork would be placed to the right of the dinner fork, next to the plate. Duh!
B: The fork that's closest to my hand and easiest to grab.
C: Um (looks at the person to the left), the smaller fork?
D: I'm good, my fingers will work just fine.
Etiquette books say that the correct answer is A, although you won't be shunned from society if you went with B or C. It's true that most people won't find themselves at a formal dinner on the average Tuesday, but etiquette is not just about knowing which fork to use. Etiquette makes you a nicer person, and we could use more nice people.
When I was a child visiting my grandmother's house, one of my favorite books to read was Letitia Baldrige's update of Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette. I am fully aware of how weird that sounds, but etiquette books are fascinating. You learn about the proper way to behave if you are ever invited to dinner at the White House, and how to have a polite conversation with new acquaintances that doesn't automatically descend into awkwardness. These were not scenarios I could relate to as a third-grader, but just knowing that one day I may need tips on how to get on the board of a nonprofit made adulthood sound very fancy.
Baldrige described the difference between etiquette and manners being as such: Etiquette is protocol, while manners are "an expression from the heart on how to treat others whether you care about them or not." Presumably, we all follow the firm rules of etiquette, but manners are ours alone, and it really doesn't matter if you poured your red wine into the proper glass if just moments earlier you berated someone for accidentally knocking into your chair.
I think everyone should read an etiquette book, even those who are quick to say "please" and "thank you." Etiquette may have a bad rap as being stuffy or old-fashioned, and yes, some of it is (think receiving lines). Sure, you probably won't need to know how your domestic staff should address you (I did wince at that section), but etiquette books cover so much more than that. What's so bad about sending thank-you notes and knowing how to give a toast? We learn the basics when we're young, but it kind of stops there. It shouldn't — your manners should get better the older you get and the more you interact with others.
Just looking through the table of contents of Baldrige's New Manners for New Times, she goes over so much — how to tip literally every person you might ever encounter in your life, sandal etiquette for men, announcing your engagement, preparing a guest room, telephone manners, how to send your condolences ... the list goes on.
It's easy to be thoughtful, whether you show that through your holiday tipping or sending flowers when a friend loses a loved one, and being mindful of others isn't hard, either. Etiquette is ever-changing. As the world evolves, so too do our manners, and Emily Post would probably have a hard time wrapping her head around the polite way to end a disagreement on Facebook or how to best respond to a message on LinkedIn.
You can't just read about etiquette; you must practice it. Make it fun! Go out to a fancy restaurant and use the right utensils, and buy some cute cards so you can jot a quick note thanking your neighbor for that bag of avocados he left on your porch. When you answer the phone, even if it's to find a telemarketer harassing you for the billionth time, be kind as you firmly tell them to stop calling your home, thank you very much.
How you interact with others is like your calling card. Do you really want to be the guy that doesn't hold the door open, whose rudeness is the talk of the office? Or, would you rather be known as the considerate guy who never arrives at a party empty-handed, and is quick to reassure a waiter when he accidentally drops his dish on the floor? Knowing that you are treating people the right way boosts your confidence, and makes you someone others want to be around.
Showing compassion — to friends, family, complete strangers — is one of the most important things we can do for one another. Think of all the people you encounter in a day, and how terrible it would be if no one ever looked you in the eye when they asked you a question, or said "thank you" after you handed them your change. Let's make sure we all do our part by minding our manners and extending grace — even to a person who uses their soup spoon while eating dessert.