What Is Etiquette? — Autistic Guide to Etiquette

As promised, I’m starting a side project writing about etiquette for my fellow autistic folks. Before I get into it, I want to thank Judy (An Autism Observer) for pointing out two other etiquette guides by-autistic-people-for-autistic-people. Real Social Skills is no longer updating, but there is some good stuff in the archives. Improve Your Social Skills by Dan Wendler has solid advice on navigating different social situations, even if he really needs to hire a new web designer.

What I’m doing here will be rather different from what you find on either of those sites — or most etiquette guides. Instead of talking about what to do in different social situations, I am going to talk about the hows and whys of etiquette. When we’re done, I want you to understand why of most social situations.


What Is Etiquette?

To start us off, we’re going to take a few minutes to talk about what etiquette is. I’m willing to bet you got a lot of ‘look people in the eye’ and ‘don’t interrupt’ and other rules of etiquette that drilled into you. But I doubt anyone ever sat down and explained what etiquette is.

Truth is, most of the people trying to teach you ‘how to behave’ didn’t understand either. They learned etiquette the way they learned to walk. They never needed to stop and think, “Okay, I need to maintain my balance on one foot while moving the other foot forward. So tighten this muscle and relax these muscles and make sure I shift my center of gravity /this/ way…”

They don’t understand how they walk. They don’t understand how gravity affects walking. They just do it.

And they don’t understand how they socialize or the etiquette rules they follow.

Okay, I’m rambling.

Etiquette Is Social Custom

Etiquette is basically the customary way people interact. If you are following etiquette, you are behaving in that customary way. If you don’t behave in that customary way, you violate etiquette.

Why does etiquette matter?

Etiquette gives everyone a ‘playbook’ for social interaction. Everyone following the same etiquette is like a group of people playing baseball together. You can only play baseball if everyone uses the same rules. If someone runs out and yells “Fore!” the game screeches to a halt. No one else on the field knows what is going on and how to respond to it.

(Yes, I grew up in a sports family. How could you tell?)

Etiquette is different everywhere

Because etiquette is simply customary behavior, it is different everywhere. And it changes over time. What is polite today would have been rude 50 years ago. What is polite in the US is rude in the UK or Japan or Nigeria.

So I’m going to be talking about etiquette in the US. But even in the US it varies.

When I was a kid, I read the book ‘Shiloh.’ I noticed that, like in a few other books I had read, the main character called his parents ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’. I figured this must have been another one of those rules everyone else knew and I didn’t and resolved to start calling my parents ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’. That resolve lasted less than half a day. The first time I called my mom ‘Ma’am’ I got in trouble for ‘mocking’ her.

I’m sure you’ve had your own introduction to the idea that what’s polite in one place is rude in another.

Etiquette experts can lay down “rules” for the socially inept. However, these “rules” change all the time as culture and society change.

Cultures create customs.

This includes etiquette. According to pop culture, propriety was the key to etiquette in Victorian England. Anything could be done as long as it was done properly. A similar concept from Japan is on or face. In the shogunates of Japan, all interactions were built around not damaging each other’s face. In the US today, the key concept is equality.

The idea that everyone is equal is the foundation of day-to-day etiquette. This is why in the movie Titanic we liked Molly Brown, who doesn’t look down on Jack. Instead, she treats him as her equal, helping without condescending. Unfortunately (in my opinion), this focus on equality has evolved into a need for same-ness. Drawing attention to another person’s differences is among the heights of rudeness. A custom many immigrants and international visitors are baffled by.

But how does ‘equality’ become a set of customary behaviors?

By combining respect and friendliness.

People are only both respectful and friendly with those they see as equals. Respect is offered to an equal or a superior. It isn’t offered to an inferior. Friendliness is offered to an equal or an inferior. Friendliness implies closeness, a connection with the other person. Offering friendliness to a superior is seen as rude because you are presuming a closeness to someone who is ‘above’ you..

So putting respect and friendliness together implies equality.

*For the not-sports inclined, golfers yell “Fore!” when the hit the ball to warn anyone ahead of them on the course to get out of the way. Why “Fore”? I have no idea.


Okay, that’s it for now. As I said, this is a side project so it’ll update irregularly. See you next time!

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