Etiquette to make it nicer? Or rules to exclude?

The Minakami Dojo has a mandatory Black Belt class once a month. It involves an hours and a half of  practice, and then a half hour lecture from Minakami Shihan. This month Shihan talked about etiquette and paying respect. The crux of his message was that paying respect was a key part of etiquette, and etiquette was a way to make those around you feel better, and make the world a more enjoyable place.

By paying respect to those who have taught you, you honor the skills you have developed and you give an offering of gratitude to the people who have given you access to those skills. The offering of gratitude reinforces the value of the skills and reminds you that you could not have developed those skills without guidance.

By observing etiquette you make the world nice, and those around you comfortable. One of the examples of etiquette that Minakami Shihan talked about was keeping the Dojo clean and orderly, in particular keeping the shoes in an orderly row. I found this example interesting because it was about how to treat the world around you, not about what to say when, or to whom. And I find that for me a clean and orderly environment is gratifying.

But then I looked up the definition of etiquette, which is–according to the American Heritage Dictionary–“The practices and forms prescribed by social convention or by authority.” And I wondered, is there a society where disorder is more comfortable than order? And if so, does that society value the world around it? I can’t think of a society that prefers disorder, except perhaps the society of adolescents in the Western world, and that society is defined by its resistance to authority and its unhappiness with the world around it. And the Western world responds by keeping adolescents isolated in their own world.

I pondered this concept of etiquette off and on as I cleaned house today–thinking about the difference between etiquette that makes the world nicer, and rules that cast certain people’s behavior as evil and justifies their exclusion from a given group. Obviously there is a difference, but just what is it?

Then, at the book store this evening, I came across a small hardcover called Why Manners Matter: The Case for Civilized Behavior in a Barbarous World. The essay posits that manners help each generation avoid “the human tendency to regress to barbarism,” and explores the case for manners, how manners connect us to the things we cherish, and how manners help shape the ways in which we nourish our individual humanity.

But I wonder, again, as I did when I was cleaning house, just whose manners are we talking about? Barbarism is defined–in the American Heritage Dictionary–as “an act, trait, or custom characterized by ignorance or crudity.” The Greek root of the word barbarism is barbaros, which means “non-Greek, foreign.” So do manners or etiquette make the world nice for everyone, or just for those in your group who share the same values? And do we use manners and etiquette to unite or divide people?

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