Some thoughts from Messing with Manners

Thoughts on messing with manners…

A question in many people’s mind is whether or not etiquette has any flexibility in its practices …the short answer, is of course it does.

So when are detours or adjustments allowed? When are they necessary? Any variation from etiquette’s standards requires an understanding of why we do what we do, where we are going, and how a change from usual protocol may impact others.

If we rigidly uphold “tradition” for its sake alone, we become rather stuffy and relationships often suffer.  On the other hand, when we ignore etiquette in favor of “whatever” or “doing our own thing” or “doing it my way”, our heady presumption can produce some sad results. The idea of respectful service towards others under girds polite protocols. From this  you can see why self-serving and immature people balk at the idea of etiquette.

Those of us with a little mileage on our social tires realize that the standard road in good manners is often the best route. After all much in etiquette hails from thoughtful consideration of the situation at hand, its function and orderly needs, and, importantly, the people involved in the situation.

This idea in the design world is expressed in the modern adage “good form follows function” and similarly in etiquette, the function and purpose of circumstances prescribed the best form manners should undertake.

Life situations, however, are complex, thus form’s purpose sometimes takes necessary adjustments. Although good manners can adapt and adjust at times, let’s remember that much in tried and true etiquette already exists… and for good reason. For example, a person helpfully opens a door for someone with a handful of items or a younger person offers a seat to an elderly lady in need. I like how manners teach us to look beyond ourselves to the welfare of others.

When we presume to “mess with manners (or ignore them completely) wrong turns can result…but NOT always if basic underlying principles are maintained…. Successful changes, however, take wisdom coupled with a genuine concern for others.

With this in mind, a timeless post follows, with a link at the end, because Nancy Ann, the writer, shares an important aspect about etiquette’s applications in various situations. I like her title…”messing with manners” and I like her thoughts.

Nancy points out that there are times when necessity dictates some flexibility in social protocols. She closes with another good point that etiquette can vary from country to country… something many of us has discovered in our travel experiences. See what you think, then visit Nancy’s blog for more discussion and comments.

Messing with Manners

Published by Nancy Ann on February 27, 2010 in Hospitality. 13 Comments

“When we come to discuss particular points of social etiquette, it’s important to look at the big, bigger, and biggest picture.  Most of the rules regarding manners were established hundreds of years ago and have been honored and acknowledged for generations by our own ancestors and all their aunts and uncles. I dare say that your great-grandma was telling your grandfather at the table not to chew with his mouth open, to put his napkin on his lap, and not to talk with his mouth full. Let’s hear it for good manners! But manners were made for man, not man for the manners.

A bunch of these older traditions and social expectations have morphed and evolved into their present forms, and for good reason. I can remember reading through an old book on etiquette and breathing a sigh of relief that we have moved on from some of those outdated customs. But we still have many cultural expectations, especially regarding weddings and showers, funerals and anniversaries, graduations and birthdays. Sometimes necessity dictates that we mess with some of the standards of accepted social etiquette.

For example, our congregation is large, and we have lots of growing families. Some years ago we moved away from having the traditional baby and wedding showers because we were faced with a choice: either we would have to exclude most of the women in the congregation from the guest list, or we would have to restructure the shower format. We opted for the latter. And with the growing number of showers, if we wanted to enable the women to attend, we would have to make them shorter events. So we began having open-house showers, and we used the church email to send out the invitations. You have to realize that a normal shower around here will have thirty or more ladies attend. We can’t exactly plan a sit-down luncheon for that many ladies, and with a shower or two every other week or two, most women would not be able to afford the time to attend so many social events. But we wanted to keep up the church-wide celebrations, so we made a change for what we considered to be good reasons.  No one had their feathers ruffled that I know of. In fact, there was a big sigh of relief on all fronts! And they are lovely events, with beautiful spreads of food and piles of gifts. And most of the recipients still send out thank-you notes (not because it is a rule….simply a lovely custom).

Now of course, we do not expect other women in other communities to adopt our method of shower-giving unless it would be helpful to them. We are not trying to change the world; we are merely trying to keep some sanity in our own shower-giving. Is our method of shower-giving an innovation? Yes. Is it sin? No. Might someone wonder what in the world we are doing? Yes.

They may think we are stepping high, wide, and handsome. They may be surprised that we don’t send out stamped invitations, play shower games, and sit in a circle watching the guest of honor open her gifts. Who do we think we are anyway? And it would be easy for us to respond that we are not bound to give showers the way our ancestors did just because. But I don’t think that’s a good answer. We ought to have a good reason if we are going to go messing around with the traditions of  our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers before us.  In this case, I think we did have good reasons, and so we messed.

So let’s bring this around to our current conversation about who should give the shower. If moms and sisters start giving showers for their daughters and sisters, then they ought to have a good reason for doing so. (If women start throwing themselves showers, they had better have a good reason as well!) I’m not sure what that reason might be, but there may be a good one. And though I might flinch if I heard a mother was throwing a shower for her daughter, it most emphatically would not be because I was offended. Rather, I might flinch because I would be worried about the hostess. Oh dear. Does she realize that it might look/seem weird to some people? Does she know this is a bit of a faux pas? Historically taboo for the last hundred years?  But I would happily go to the shower. No problem.

Finally, I have to acknowledge to you all (in case you didn’t know) that I am well into my fifties, and like it or not, age makes a difference. My mom taught me this stuff, and it is in my bones. Many of you readers are much younger than I am, and you’ve never heard of such a thing. Not only do generations make a difference, but where you grew up makes a difference. In fact, it makes a very big difference.  According to Bekah, in England a baby shower is simply not done. Here in the US we shower like crazy. So there you go. That’s where I’m coming from.”

Here’s the link to to see this article and comments in response to Nancy Ann’s discussion:


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