I love etiquette books. I’m always on the lookout for them when I go to used book sales. The older and more exhaustive they are, the more I like them. I love the way they spell out, in fascinatingly specific detail, how to act in every imaginable situation. I know the correct thing to wear on a yacht outing (it varies depending on the size of the vessel and the season), why you should never end a letter with the phrase “hastily yours,” and the way to arrange a table for an informal afternoon tea.
It can seem very quaint to talk about etiquette today. It’s like the antique tea set that you can look at but never, ever use.
But I would like to make the case that etiquette is something that is very much needed today. As more of our interactions with other people are moving online, it’s easier than ever to cause offense or misunderstand each other. We are in uncharted territory where we can casually wound people without ever having to see the look on their faces. Or we can cause people to feel excluded or inferior or rejected or just plain dull without having a clue that we are doing it. Having good manners– whether face to face or online– means anticipating how our actions (or lack of action) will affect other people.
It may seem out of place to talk about etiquette on a blog that professes to be about the messiness of grace. Isn’t etiquette all about keeping rules? Isn’t it a bit repressive to worry about being polite all the time? Isn’t that the opposite of being real and honest and expressing yourself?
Well, no. Good manners are often reduced to a list of do’s and don’t, but at the heart they are about training ourselves to act in ways that cause the least harm to the people around us. Being polite and considerate, rather than encouraging falseness should encourage people to be more honest. If someone consistently shows you that they are considering your feelings above their own, wouldn’t you trust them with anything? Good manners are the way we show grace to each other because manners say to the people we are interacting with that they deserve our best behavior without earning it– merely because they are people created in the image of their Creator.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
Now I freely admit that some people are naturally more sensitive to the feelings and needs of others, but the idea of etiquette is that all of us can teach ourselves to think about others when we act. Simply by being alive right now you have a tremendous ability to affect other people’s lives– and a responsibility to use that ability carefully and wisely.
It’s no mistake that the word to describe a person who shows grace–gracious– is often used interchangeably with the idea of being well-mannered. Manners are grace on the smallest, most commonplace scale. And that is the place where grace is perhaps the most needed.
Over the next few weeks I’m going to be going through a sort of mini series exploring ways that we can all be showing more grace to each other in real, practical (although not necessarily easy) ways. I hope you will join me on my own journey to be a more truly gracious person in the way I listen, imagine, and leave my mark on the people I come in contact with.
Word art by my lovely (and talented) sister Sarah.