Richmond Proper: Of Introduction and a Sense of Purpose

“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” — Emily Post

“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
— Emily Post

Etiquette, n. The practices and forms prescribed by social convention or by authority.

Manners, n. The socially correct way of acting; etiquette.

Politeness, n. Well-mannered behavior toward others.

Hello and welcome to the inaugural edition of Richmond Proper, RVANews’s new etiquette column.

Before you yell out “borrrrrrrring!” and go back to your cave paintings, ask yourself whether you choose an Ebenezer Scrooge life of only looking out for Number One, or whether being considerate of others is important to you. Most of us would answer the latter, and it’s in that spirit that I invite you to enjoy this column. Everywhere you look — in the news, in music and fashion, and in the purchasing preferences of friends — there is an increased focus on finding ways to benefit others by our daily choices. Call it American guilt, call it a new awareness of others’ living conditions, call it whatever you wish. The fact is that this desire to be helpful is present, and one way to make positive changes in our lifestyles is to cultivate a sense of etiquette, to live with a focus on the comfort of others rather than the comfort of ourselves.

I can hear the protests already, even before they reach the comments section. “But I live in a fun zone without societal constraints! Don’t push your stuffy etiquette on me and my natural state!” As casual and standards-less as you may profess to be, the truth is that whether your acknowledge them or not, you do have standards. Everybody operates on his or her own “normal” plane; a plane where certain actions are either acceptable or unacceptable. In truth, it should be considered cruel to expect folks to navigate the task of living amongst other humans without some sort of guide to expected behavior. So we are not ascribing a set of rules which weren’t there to being with, but rather setting these ever-existing rules down in type to make it easier to compare notes. While we may spend a lot of time in this column talking about the practical applications of etiquette (how to actually behave), the goal is really to achieve politeness. In other words, the purpose of this column is to make life easier; to make the path clearer by which we communicate good will to others.

In theory this practice of seeking the comfort of others must be in place within our own lives before we have really affected the world at large. For example, we wouldn’t be gaining much in the grand scheme of things if we made a very generous contribution to some charitable organization and then ruined Sunday dinner with a vicious dining room fight. Consistency is one of our goals here: to be steady, dependable beings instead of unreliable, finicky beasts. What we seek is somewhere between unregulated, mass chaos and the Alice In Wonderland-esque nightmare where one can barely breathe without offending the powers that be. What we’re looking for is the place where etiquette has a calming effect on life rather than a nuisance effect.

I was raised to chew with my mouth closed and to say “please” and “thank you,” and I like to think that I have a good natural sense of what’s polite and what’s rude. But I am by no means an etiquette expert myself, and am unqualified to deliver preachy decrees from some lofty pulpit. Instead, think of me as a fellow scholar, just as confused as everyone else and just as eager to glean a few simple truths out of the intimidating maelstrom of manners. We will be sifting through the world of etiquette together, and learning as we go.

Our sources will include our good friend Common Sense and some of the blogosphere’s modern manners pundits, like Anna Post. I will also draw heavily from the Bibles of etiquette, those precedence-setting guides from Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, and Miss Manners (aka Judith Martin). While I urge everyone to clear a space in his or her bookcase and fill it with both old and new versions of etiquette books, I understand that many of my readers will skip this task in favor of reading my bite-sized summaries. I’m happy to oblige because I love sitting down and reading reference tomes from beginning to end, and you probably don’t. You’re welcome.

At times the going may be tough, for the mountains in Mordor are steep. Sometimes we will be divided: some of us will wish to throw some rule out, and some of us will wish to revere and uphold the same rule. Often we may trespass against the basics of civility even when discussing our opinions on civility itself. But I implore you, stay strong! Stick with me here! Do not falter even as the arid winds of conflict ruffle our cloaks, because the exhilaration of hurling Rudeness and Inconsiderateness into the boiling pit will be our reward.

“Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”
— Eric Hoffer

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

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