… for the relationship between etiquette and Christianity

Proper etiquette is less about rigid rules and more about loving others. This is a wonderful post on the relationship between etiquette and Christianity.

Don’t tell my husband: As soon as I saw that the new Emily Post’s Etiquette (18th ed.) released in October, I thought, I know what I’m getting Rafi for Christmas! If you know my husband, this will surprise you. Rafi doesn’t exactly seem the fussy manner sort, the type who would enjoy this book. He’s definitely not a stern Captain Von Trapp at the table, reminding our kids of their place, of their do’s and don’ts. And because he’s been married to a feminist long enough, he knows better than to pull off any mindless gallantry.

But still, Emily Post has a special place in our relationship. While we initially bonded (and probably fell in love) over our shared love of dogs, my own love for him deepened the day I saw a copy of Emily Post’s 14th edition on his bookshelf. I particularly liked the red-tassel gradeschool bookmark that hung across the top of the huge volume.

“You’ve read that?” I asked.

“A good chunk of it.”

His aunt had given it to him for Christmas when he was 14—just after he started prep school, and before launching into the world of dating and then college and then job and family, where, his aunt had rightly assumed, good manners were important.

My husband—not a huge reader—read the book over a “slow weekend,” not because he was so interested in manners per se, but because he liked the order and logic of it all. He’s a cut-and-dry kind of guy, and he liked knowing the right and wrong of how to act.

I paid attention to etiquette for similar reasons. My natural social bent is awkward. I am shy and introverted, and my mind tends to blank out when it comes time for making small talk. Walking into a room or sitting at a table full of people I don’t know is the stuff my nightmares are made of.

So understanding the rules of etiquette became a safety net. Knowing which fork to use, where to put my coffee cup, along with some tips on creating nifty small talk takes the pressure off.

Indeed, Peggy Post, Emily’s great-granddaughter in-law and director of the Emily Post Institute, recently told the Daily Beast, “Etiquette gives people the blueprints to deal with times of stress.”

In the article, Jennie Yabroff writes that Post became popular during the Depression because “[a]n anxious nation wanted reassurance about how to sit at the table, even if it had no guarantee of where the food on it would come from.”

It’s that sense of certainty in uncertainty, order in chaos that I’ve long believed is one of the main reasons I count Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence as one of my favorite books. With all that was wrong (and there was a lot!) with life in the Gilded Age, and as much as I probably would’ve struggled in any strata of society back then, the idea of such an ordered life appeals. I’ve always subscribed to the “free to be you and me” philosophy of the 1970s I grew up with, but on the days when this is hard (and freedom is always hard), I start yearning for a bit of Victorian rigidity.

But still—that rigid view of etiquette turns most people off. The idea of including or shunning a person based on birth or behavior doesn’t sit well with most of us 21st-century Westerners.

The idea of excluding based on etiquette should be especially troublesome for Christians, as it’s quite contrary to our Jesus. The One who invited himself over to dinner (the nerve!) to the home of a tax-collector (rabbis and tax-collectors? That shouldn’t happen!). To the Jesus who hung out alone with uncouth women (gasp!) and then talked theology and other taboo topics (the horror!). All that, along with a zillion other things that were just not said and done in polite Jewish society.

And yet, Jesus is all about etiquette. He’s the Granddaddy of Good Manners, really.

Consider these quotes:

“Emily Post believed in having rules, but thought that everyone should have equal access to them. Your only obligation is to make the other person feel OK.”
—Laura Claridge, Post’s biographer

“[Etiquette] is the golden rule.”
—ibid

“Courteous people are flexible, willing to adjust their own behavior to the needs and feelings of others… Courteous people are forgiving and understand that nobody is perfect.”
—Emily Post’s Etiquette (18th ed.)

“Every edition of her book emphasized the basic rule of etiquette: make the other person comfortable.”
—Post’s New York Times obituary (9/27/1960)

Now consider these:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”
—Jesus, Matthew 7:12

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
—Jesus, Matthew 22:39

“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.”
—Jesus, Luke 6:35

Seems Jesus and Ms. Post were on the same page.

As we head into Christmas and New Year’s and all their fancy trimmings, we might do well to remember that proper etiquette isn’t about separating ourselves from others or establishing needless rules to complicate life or shame people. Etiquette is about creating order, yes, but more importantly, about welcoming, considering, and loving others—even our enemies.

When we hold open that door, it’s not because another person is not able, but because it’s kind. When we set a proper and pretty table, it’s not to show off, but to tell those around the table that we love them. When we handwrite those thank-you notes, it shows gratitude and tells the recipient they are worthy of our efforts.

Whether you call it etiquette or simply following Jesus, it’s a nice way to live.

-Caryn Rivadeneira

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