Sunday 3 October 2010


Interesting to find how many synonyms people have used for “Etiquette” during our last session of Café-philo: faux-pas, mannerism, code of conduct, protocol, rules of the game, formality, ritual, ceremony, decorum, politeness, and finally a ticket or a label.  
Hunting etiquette in Book of Hours (Livre d'Heures), 1442
 Etymology: originated in France meaning “ticket” which defines the prerogatives of the nobilities. The 17th century European court education consists of the learning of code of etiquette, which includes sensitivity to language and demeanours, deference and pomposity, ceremonial behaviour and festive disorder, fostering the “natural” superiority appropriate to hereditary aristocracy. Such education was the aristocracy’s response to the absolutism in the French monarchy.

Etiquette differs from “good manners”. Etiquette is artificial set of rules imposed on society where good manners can be part of the natural instinct of being polite.

Exclusivity: Etiquette may reflect a person’s fashion and status. It often serves as a “ticket of admission” to a special club. In pre-Revolution Russia, speaking French was the decorum of the “polite society".  In other words, a prerequisite for the status of an aristocrat in Tzarist Russia.  Being of French origin arising from the practices in Louis XIV’s court, the notion of etiquette and decorum is frowned upon in the United States – a country without a history of monarchy and aristocracy. From the 20th century, the notion of etiquette in Europe has gradually been eroded by the notion of equality, along with the diminition of aristocracy. Conventional etiquette is only practiced in special ceremonies.

We may see distinct differences in social mores in different countries. Some etiquette serves no particular purpose except showing pure aesthetic values such as flower arranging. Some etiquette just seems so pointless that it verges on the ridiculous with its pomposity and ceremonies. The most commonly quoted Japanese etiquette is the Tea Ceremony. The tea serving in Japan has been so ritualised that it fascinates and mystifies outsiders with its theatricality which defies reasoning. Japan may not be the only country with tea ceremony. In Middle-Eastern countries, where the weather is arid and hot, mint tea is often served in a special manner to relieve the fatigue and thirst of Muslim brethren. Some rules of etiquette are similar in different cultures, such as the removal of shoes in sacred places as a common practice in both Buddhist temple and Islamic Mosque.

Culture clash: Some rules of etiquette in one country can often be seen as offence by another culture. Take table manners for example, the Orientals eat with chopsticks and they have a habit of slurping while eating noodles. This would be construed as revolting table manners in the West. Vice versa, where in America a guest is supposed to eat all he has been offered while this would be seen as greedy and gluttony behaviour in Oriental culture.

Rules of etiquette may reflect the underlying ethical code. Every society has its own code of conduct incorporated into the local legal system for the purpose of disciplining people’s behaviour and reinforcing the conformity of certain social convention. Certain code of social convention might be obstructive to the economic growth, for example, fasting on Ramadan or closing of business on Holy Friday can seriously reduce business output in the society. Because of different family values, Nepotism, which is illegal in the West, is considered quite normal in the East. Business dealings can be tricky when there is cultural clash. In China, the most important concept in business dealing is “face”, which loosely translates as honour, reputation, and reliability. Any breach of etiquette that causes embarrassment to oneself means loss of “face”. In America, to say “yes” means “yes”, “no” means “no” this kind of direct no-nonsense answer would be considered a “Faux-pas” in Asia. The stereotyped Oriental businessmen often give the impression of being non-confrontational, as they rarely give a straight answer as “no”. The usual answer is “they will think about it”, or they “will see”. Even the British use the expression “in due course” can be interpreted as a convenient way of avoiding a specific time or date.

As a consequence of the globalisation, many cultural differences are on the verge of disappearing. With the rapid economic growth and the emphasis on “time is money”, some codes of etiquette are construed as obstacles or impediment of effective business dealings. Consequently, many conventional protocols have been dispensed with in the face of social demographic progress of the late 20th and early 21st century. The call for efficiency and effectiveness of management style requires that the modern men and women use plain language and direct answers in business world, effectively abolishing the nuances and subtlety of languages. How much does it say for the future of our civilisation?

A practical guide to business etiquette in different countries can be found here:


The French are often impressed with good debating skills that demonstrate an intellectual grasp of the situation and all the ramifications.” - from above website

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