10 Rules of Etiquette Everyone Should Know (and Follow!)

by Marla Walters on 3 December 2013 17 comments

"It is axiomatic that as we mature and grow in years and experience we must be able to meet more demanding social situations with confidence and ease." — Amy Vanderbilt, The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette

Using proper etiquette does not mean you are stuffy or old-fashioned. To me, having manners means you are a respectful person and considerate of others. Use of etiquette can convey respect of other cultures, traditions, or religions. (See also: New York City Basic Tips and Etiquette)

Below are 10 rules of etiquette — some old, some new — that I feel are important and have been too often ignored lately.

1. The RSVP

RSVP is an acronym of the French phrase, "Respondez s'il vous plait," or "Respond, if you please."

I have been guilty of not quickly responding to RSVPs, myself. Why? I think they are a little anxiety-provoking. Often, the events are formal, and you wonder if you can afford to go because you might need to dress up or pay for travel. Another issue with RSVPs is that they are sometimes so far in advance, and it can be difficult to commit to something in the future. However, if you have ever thrown a formal or large party, you really do need to know how many guests will be attending. Details have to be nailed down, like the amount of food or liquor to buy, and having enough chairs and tables. Do your host or hostess a favor and let them know, by the date indicated on the invitation, if you're a "yes" or a "no." (See also: How to Save $5000 on Your Wedding)

2. Place Settings

Which fork do I use? We have all been there...seated at a formal table, and thought, "Omigosh, which fork am I supposed to use?" Relax, there is an easy way to remember: Work from the outside in.

That shorter fork is for your salad. Start there. With each new course, just work your way in. When you are done, simply place your utensils side by side at an angle on your plate (fork tines facing up, knife blade facing the center of the plate), which is a signal to the waiter that you are done.

One more bit of table advice: Wait until your hostess is seated before you start eating. When she picks up her fork, so can you. If you are a parent, even if your own style is very informal, please teach your children how to handle this situation, so that when they encounter all that cutlery someday, they are not unnerved. (See also: 11 Rules of Excellent Houseguest Etiquette)

3. Thank-You Notes

The thank-you note is essential in both everyday life as well as in business correspondence. If someone has gone through the trouble of buying you a gift, has helped you, or simply done something nice, the very least you can do is to say thank you. Even small children can draw pictures, and later write very charming notes. I have a few on my refrigerator. (See also: 20+ Ways to Say Thanks)

I am not a fan of the pre-printed notes and simply signing your name. Those just do not convey much effort or gratitude. If you are stuck about what to say, my trick is to first draft the note on the computer or a piece of paper until I get it right. Contrary to popular belief, brides and grooms, you do not have a year to send out thank-you notes. There may have been a time for that (pony express?) but in a modern world, there is no reason to not get them done within a few months of the wedding.

4. Handshakes

Have you ever had a handshake that made you think, "Yuck!"? I personally am offended when someone just lays their hand in mine like a dead fish. My husband points out the other end of the spectrum — the "bone-crusher," which must be meant to prove a manly point. There is actually a correct way to do a handshake (good video, there). (See also: How to Make a Good First Impression at a Job Interview)

5. Hygiene Belongs at Home

Recently, we were at a restaurant, and the woman in back of us began flossing her teeth. Can we all agree that this is unacceptable? Flossing should be done at home, or at least in a bathroom. It is not fun for people around you to watch you get stuff out of your teeth. Adding to the "hygiene belongs at home" category:

  • Clipping your nails (I once sat in the front row of a Moscow Symphony concert and a man behind me clipped his nails. I thought the cellist might stab him with her bow.)
     
  • Brushing or combing your hair, especially while in a restaurant (hair flies around!).
     
  • Brushing your teeth in a public bathroom (if you must, please clean the sink after you do so).

6. Punctuality

I imagine that mental health professionals could give me a better understanding of why some people are constantly late for meetings, dinners, movies, etc. To me, though, it's just rude. In a business setting, being late to a meeting says,"My time is more important than yours." I also don't think dropping off your pen and paper, then announcing that you need to run to the bathroom or get coffee, "counts" as being on time.

My own solution, in the office setting, is to give it five minutes — tops — and then I start the meeting. If it is not a meeting I have called, same thing — I wait five minutes, and then leave. Some may find that drastic, but it works. In social settings, late people cause their friends to miss movies, dinner reservations, oven timers, etc. If you are one of those "I'm always late" people, you may wish to examine your reasons for lateness, before you stop getting invitations. (See also: How to Be on Time)

7. Introductions

This is another rule of etiquette that seems to cause social anxiety. Emily Post has a very practical method for introductions: Speak to the person you wish to honor first. What I find often, because I have an unusual first name, is that people simply have forgotten what my name is. If you sense that is a problem, just introduce yourself when there is a break in the conversation, and then shake hands. That will take stress off of the person who cannot remember if you are Maria, Martha, Mary, or Marla (so nice of you to remember!). (See also: Tips for Remembering Names)

8. Cell Phones

My husband says I am beating a dead horse here, but I don't give up easily.

  • If you are in a public line (post office, grocery store, DMV) and everyone around you now knows your business, you are speaking too loudly.
     
  • In a restaurant, cells should be silenced. If you receive an important call, you should excuse yourself and go outside to take the call.
     
  • If we are talking, and you are texting, I do not have your full attention.
     
  • In a movie theater, cells should be silenced, or turned off, if possible. Even the screen can light up in the dark, which is distracting.
     
  • It's dangerous to talk on a cell or text while driving.
     
  • In a business meeting, unless you are a medical professional who might be urgently needed, I do not see the need for you to be texting.

9. Deaths

When someone dies, their families are in emotional pain. The disturbing trend I have seen is that those losses are not acknowledged, because people just don't know what to do or say. Please make an effort to reach out, in one way or another, because it is hurtful to the bereaved if you ignore their loss. (See also: How to Express Condolences)

Start with reading the obituary in the paper, or from the funeral home, because they may describe the decedent's wishes. For instance, "In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to X charity" is very common. Secondly, send a letter, or a card, at the very minimum. If you can attend the funeral or memorial, it will be appreciated by the family. I also advocate taking food to the family. Sometimes, the bereaved just doesn't feel up to cooking for a while. They may also have visitors, and if you take a deli platter or a cake, they will have something to offer folks while they visit. Lastly, don't forget to include these bereaved friends or coworkers weeks or months after their loss. A widow may appreciate a dinner invitation; a friend or co-worker might enjoy seeing a movie with you.

10. Everyday, Common Consideration

When shopping, do you leave your basket in the middle of the aisle, so others cannot pass? Do you take up more than one space when you park? Why are you honking your horn? Did you interrupt somebody while they are speaking? While these might seem like small annoyances, what is at their core is using respect and consideration for others.

What rules of etiquette do you think are falling by the wayside?

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Guest's picture

One word: "please."

Guest's picture
David

How about "thanks?" I often help random people who stop me on the street for directions and such, but they must be so tired/overwhelmed/important/busy all they can muster is an "ok" or "oh."

Marla Walters's picture

Agreed!

Guest's picture
Heather

These are great reminders! It's unfortunate that some of them need to be said at all...but some of these have completely fallen by the wayside :(

Marla Walters's picture

Hi, Heather, and thank you for commenting.

It is unfortunate. I know I could use a reminder about various etiquette rules from time to time!

Guest's picture
Guest

laughing at your symphony story - recently I was filling up my car one night and watched a woman in the driver's seat with her mirror light on tweezing her moustache - stunned me

Good list!

Marla Walters's picture

Hi, Guest! Oh, boy, tweezing in public . . . that's a new one. I guess we should be thankful that she wasn't driving at the time.

Guest's picture
Ben

"... which is a signal to the waiter that you are done."

No, the turkey is done. The rice is done. The waiter needs to know when you're FINISHED."

Guest's picture

And if we are going to get all technical and proper about it … the fork and knife are placed on your plate at 4 o'clock (pretend your dinner plate is a clock face; put your utensils at 4:20).

Dessert, anyone?

Marla Walters's picture

Ben, I completely agree. "Finished" would have been a much better choice of word! Thank you for pointing that out. :-)

Guest's picture
Madeline

Yes to all of this, especially #8. I would amend on that by saying that a cafe is a type of restaurant and if you receive a call, you should step out and/or keep your voice down.

Marla Walters's picture

Hello, Madeline, and thank you for mentioning that. Just because it's a cafe or casual restaurant doesn't mean you should bother people by forcing them to hear your side of a conversation.

Guest's picture
Guest - Pg

How about when breastfeeding, always have a small towel or blanket to cover yourself.

Marla Walters's picture

Well, I always did, but people get prickly about that one.

Guest's picture
Guest - Pg

How about excuse me, people bump into you, step on your foot, interrupt conversations without saying excuse me.

Marla Walters's picture

Good ones! My husband really gets irritated with the people who interrupt, too.

Guest's picture
Kathy

I love it when someone (I'm surprised when it is a young person) holds the door open for me. I always do it especially if the person going in or out is handicapped, has their hands full, or elderly.