AskDefine | Define etiquette

Dictionary Definition

etiquette n : rules governing socially acceptable behavior

User Contributed Dictionary



From étiquette, property, a little piece of paper, or a mark or title, affixed to a bag or bundle, expressing its contents, a label, ticket. The French Court of Louis XIV at Versailles used étiquettes, little cards, to remind courtiers to keep off of the grass and similar rules.



  1. The forms required by good breeding, or prescribed by authority, to be observed in social or official life; observance of the proprieties of rank and occasion; conventional decorum; ceremonial code of polite society.
  2. The customary behavior of members of a profession, business, law, or sports team towards each other.


  • 1885 — Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado
    If you think we are worked by strings,
    Like a Japanese marionette,
    You don't understand these things:
    It is simply Court etiquette.


forms to be observed in social or official life
  • Croatian: etiketa
  • Czech: etiketa
  • German: Etikette
customary behavior
  • Croatian: etiketa
  • Czech: etiketa
  • Danish: etikette
  • German: Etikette

Extensive Definition

Etiquette, one aspect of decorum, is a code that governs the expectations of social behavior, according to the contemporary conventional norm within a society, social class, or group. Usually unwritten, it may be codified in written form. Etiquette usually reflects formulas of conduct in which society or tradition have invested. An etiquette may reflect an underlying ethical code, or in may grow more as a fashion, as in eighteenth century Britain where apparently pointless acts like the manner in which a tea cup was held became associated with the upper class. Like "culture", it is a word that has gradually grown plural, especially in a multi-ethnic society with many clashing expectations. Thus, it is now possible to refer to "an etiquette" or "a culture", realizing that these may not be universal. In Britain, though, the word etiquette has its roots in the eighteenth century, becoming a universal force in the nineteenth century to the extent that it has been described as the one word that aptly describes life during the reign of Queen Victoria

Norms and effects of etiquette

Etiquette codes prescribe and restrict the ways in which people interact with each other, based on respect for other people and the accepted customs of a society.
Modern etiquette codifies social interactions with others, such as:
  • Greeting relatives, friends and acquaintances with warmth and respect
  • Refraining from insults and prying curiosity
  • Offering hospitality to guests
  • Wearing clothing suited to the occasion
  • Contributing to conversations without dominating them
  • Offering assistance to those in need
  • Eating neatly and quietly
  • Avoiding disturbing others with unnecessary noise
  • Following established rules of an organization upon becoming a member
  • Arriving promptly when expected
  • Comforting the bereaved
  • Responding to invitations promptly
  • Accepting gifts or favors with humility and to acknowledge them promptly with thanks (e.g. a thank-you card)
In the upper strata of Roman society, etiquette would have instructed a man to: greet friends and acquaintances with decorum, according to their rank, refrain from showing emotions in public, keep his wife(s) secluded from his clients, support his family's position with public munificence, etc. Lower strata conformed to different rules.
Violations of etiquette, if severe, can cause public disgrace, and in private hurt individual feelings, create misunderstandings or real grief and pain, and can even escalate into murderous rage. Many family feuds have their beginnings in trivial etiquette violations that were blown out of proportion. In the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata, the entire world-destroying conflict between the armies of two clans begins when one ruler, Duryodhana, commits a couple of minor faux pas at his cousin's castle, and is impolitely made fun of for it. One can reasonably view etiquette as the minimal politics required to avoid major conflict in polite society, and as such, an important aspect of applied ethics.


Manners involve a wide range of social interactions within cultural norms as in the "comedy of manners", or a painter's characteristic "manner". Etiquette and manners, like mythology, have buried histories especially when they seem to have little obvious purpose, and their justifications as logical ("respect shown to others" etc.) may be equally revealing to the social historian.

Cultural differences

Etiquette is dependent on culture; what is excellent etiquette in one society may shock another. Etiquette evolves within culture. The Dutch painter Andries Both shows that the hunt for head lice (illustration, right), which had been a civilized grooming occupation in the early Middle Ages, a bonding experience that reinforced the comparative rank of two people, one groomed, one groomer, had become a peasant occupation by 1630. The painter portrays the familiar operation matter-of-factly, without the sarcasm this subject would have received in a nineteenth-century representation.
Etiquette can vary widely between different cultures and nations. In China, a person who takes the last item of food from a common plate or bowl without first offering it to others at the table may be seen as a glutton and insulting the generosity of the host. In most European cultures a guest is expected to eat all of the food given to them, as a compliment to the quality of the cooking.
Etiquette is a topic that has occupied writers and thinkers in all sophisticated societies for millennia, beginning with a behavior code by Ptahhotep, a vizier in ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom during the reign of the Fifth Dynasty king Djedkare Isesi (ca. 2414–2375 B.C.). All known literate civilizations, including ancient Greece and Rome, developed rules for proper social conduct. Confucius included rules for eating and speaking along with his more philosophical sayings. Early modern conceptions of what behavior identifies a "gentleman" were codified in the sixteenth century, in a book by Baldassare Castiglione, Il Cortegiano ("The Courtier"); its codification of expectations at the Este court remained in force in its essentials until World War I. Louis XIV established an elaborate and rigid court ceremony, but distinguished himself from the high bourgeoisie by continuing to eat, stylishly and fastidiously, with his fingers. An important book about etiquette is Galateo, overo de' costumi by Monsignor Giovanni della Casa; in fact, in Italian, etiquette is generally called galateo (or etichetta or protocollo).
In the UK, Debrett's is considered by many to be the arbiter of etiquette; their guides to manners and form have long been the last word among polite society. Traditional publications such as Correct Form have recently been updated to reflect contemporary society, and new titles Etiquette for Girls and Manners for Men act as guides for those who want to combine a modern lifestyle with traditional values.
In the American colonies Benjamin Franklin and George Washington wrote codes of conduct for young gentlemen. The immense popularity of advice columns and books by Letitia Baldrige and Miss Manners shows the currency of this topic. Even more recently, the rise of the Internet has necessitated the adaptation of existing rules of conduct to create Netiquette, which governs the drafting of email, rules for participating in an online forum, and so on.
In Germany, there is an "unofficial" code of conduct, called the Knigge, based on a book of high rules of conduct written by Adolph Freiherr Knigge in the late 18th century entitled exactly Über den Umgang mit Menschen (On Human Relations). The code of conduct is still highly respected in Germany today and is used primarily in the higher society.
Etiquette may be wielded as a social weapon. The outward adoption of the superficial mannerisms of an in-group, in the interests of social advancement rather than a concern for others, is a form of snobbism, lacking in virtue.

Western business etiquette

The etiquette of business is the set of written and unwritten rules of conduct that make social interactions run more smoothly. Office etiquette in particular applies to coworker interaction, excluding interactions with external contacts such as customers and suppliers. Both office and business etiquette overlap considerably with basic tenets of netiquette. The conventions of office etiquette address unique, office environmental issues such as cubicle life, usage of common areas, meetings, and other forms of social interaction within the context of a work setting. The rules of office etiquette may vary by region, office size, business specialty, company policy, and, to a certain degree, various laws governing the workplace. Larger organizations tend to have stricter, expressly written rules on etiquette. These rules are often echoed throughout an industry or economy. For instance, 49% of employers surveyed in 2005 by the American National Association of Colleges and Employers found that non-traditional attire would be a "strong influence" on their opinion of a potential job candidate.


Further reading

  • The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette: 50th Anniversary Edition, by Nancy Tuckerman, Nancy Dunnan, and Amy Vanderbilt, Doubleday (1995), ISBN 0-385-41342-4, 786 pages: originally published in 1952, this and Emily Post's book were the U.S. etiquette bibles of the 50's-70's era.
  • Debrett's Correct Form, Debrett's Limited (2006), 192 pages.
  • Debrett's Wedding Guide, Debrett's Limited (2007), 224 pages.
  • Debrett's Etiquette for Girls, Debrett's Limited (2006), 224 pages.
  • Debrett's Manners for Men: What Women Really Want, Debrett's Limited (2007), 192 pages.
  • Eye to Eye: How People Interact, by Peter Marsh, Salem House Publication, ISBN 0-8816-2371-7, 256 pages.
  • From Clueless to Class Act, series of books on etiquette, by Jodi Smith deals with proper etiquette for men and women.
  • The Little Book of Etiquette by Dorothea Johnson, Protocol School of Washington, Philadelphia/London, Running Press (1997)ISBN-13-978-0-7624-0009-6, 127 pages. A pocket-sized, take-along reference book for the user's convenience.
  • Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated, by Judith Martin, illustrated by Gloria Kanem, W.W. Norton & Co. (2005), ISBN 0-393-05874-3, 858 pages.
  • New Manners for New Times: A Complete Guide to Etiquette, by Letitia Baldrige, New York: Scribner, 2003, ISBN 0-7432-1062-X, 709 pages.
  • The Power of Handshaking for Peak Performance Worldwide by Robert E. Brown and Dorothea Johnson, Protocol School of Washington, Capital Books, Inc., Herndon, Virginia (2004), ISBN 1-931868-88-3, 98 pages.
  • Town & Country Modern Manners: The Thinking Person's Guide to Social Graces, by Thomas P. Farley, Hearst Books (September 2005), ISBN 1-58816-454-3, 256 pages.
  • Manners That Sell: Adding the Polish that Builds Profits, by Lydia Ramsey, Longfellow Press (2007), 978-0967001203, 188 pages.

External links

etiquette in German: Umgangsformen
etiquette in Estonian: Etikett (käitumine)
etiquette in French: Étiquette (code)
etiquette in Croatian: Bonton
etiquette in Hebrew: אטיקט
etiquette in Dutch: Etiquette
etiquette in Japanese: マナー
etiquette in Polish: Etykieta
etiquette in Portuguese: Etiqueta à mesa
etiquette in Russian: Этикет
etiquette in Slovenian: Bonton
etiquette in Finnish: Etiketti
etiquette in Swedish: Etikettregler

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

amenities, approbatory, approving, behavior, bienseance, bon ton, civilities, civility, comity, commendatory, complimentary, conduct, conformity, consuetude, convenance, convention, conventional usage, conventionalism, conventionality, correct deportment, correctness, courtesy, courtliness, custom, decencies, decency, decorousness, decorum, deportment, dignity, diplomatic code, discourtesy, elegance, elegancies, encomiastic, established way, eulogistic, exquisite manners, fashion, folkway, form, formalities, formality, good behavior, good citizenship, good form, good manners, laudatory, manner, manners, misbehavior, mores, natural politeness, observance, panegyrical, point of etiquette, politeness, politesse, poor behavior, practice, praiseful, praxis, prescription, proper thing, proprieties, propriety, protocol, punctilio, quiet good manners, ritual, rules of conduct, sanctioned behavior, seemliness, sociability, social code, social conduct, social convention, social graces, social procedures, social usage, standard behavior, standard usage, standing custom, time-honored practice, tradition, usage, use, way, what is done, wont, wonting
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