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What is Etiquette?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Etiquette is a set of practices and forms which are followed in a wide variety of situations; many people consider it to be a branch of decorum, or general social behavior. Each society has its own distinct etiquette, and various cultures within a society also have their own rules and social norms. Learning these codes of behavior can be very challenging for people who are new to a particular culture, and even old hands sometimes have a rough time.

The rules of etiquette govern how people behave. For example, the concept of greeting people politely and with respect is common to the codes of behavior of many cultures, although the way in which that respect is expressed may vary. In some Asian countries, for example, people may bow or clasp their hands together when greeting someone, while in the United States, people often shake hands, or hug each other in some subcultures.

It is safe to assume that there is an etiquette role for pretty much every situation one might encounter, from meeting the President of the United States to politely declining a meal in the Middle East. Because the social norms of different cultures are so different, many people study etiquette before traveling or entering a new social circle to ensure that they do not cause offense or embarrass themselves.

The consequences of lapses in etiquette may vary. At a minimum, someone might feel slightly awkward, and the people present at the time of the lapse might form an unfavorable impression of the offender. At worst, a lapse could cost a friendship or a job, and in some regions of the world, a serious breach could cost you your life. Depending on the culture you are in, people may be happy to answer questions about basic etiquette for you before you enter a potentially hazardous social situation, and people are usually amenable to apologies, especially when they are made promptly.

By treating people as respectfully as you know how and by using common sense, you will probably avoid most perilous behavior related situations. However, if you are planning to enter an unfamiliar culture, whether it be another country or the military, it pays to do research. It is especially important to review such guides if you plan to travel, as it is very easy to thoughtlessly cause offense, potentially generating a big social rift.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon331527 — On Apr 23, 2013

My Dad's cousin comes over every night to play dominoes and drink coffee. She never has him over to her house. Isn't this bad etiquette?

By Oceana — On Dec 13, 2012

My mother never taught me table etiquette while I was growing up. We always just left the table whenever we were finished eating, even if other people were still seated and chewing their food.

I didn't find out that this was considered rude until I ate at a friend's house. When I got up from the table, her mother quickly told me that I needed to ask to be excused before leaving.

By DylanB — On Dec 12, 2012

I am so afraid of offending people of other cultures! I believe that if I ever had to travel abroad, I would take some sort of etiquette course first. How else could I learn what not to do?

By giddion — On Dec 11, 2012

@JackWhack – I absolutely agree with you that it is rude. When you are in a dressing room or a restroom, the environment is generally quiet, so everyone in the area is forced to listen to you talk.

Hearing a one-sided conversation is annoying to me in any situation. However, when I'm trapped in a restroom stall or held captive in a dressing room, I find it intolerable.

I once had a lady in the bathroom stall next to mine use her cell phone to order a large pizza while she was on the toilet! Let's just say it was less than appetizing.

By JackWhack — On Dec 10, 2012

Telephone etiquette used to be pretty easy to figure out. Nowadays, though, cell phones raise tons of new questions about when and where it is polite to use them.

What are your opinions on people using cell phones inside dressing rooms and public restrooms? Personally, I think it's rude, but so many people do it that I'm wondering if etiquette for this even exists.

By anon262150 — On Apr 18, 2012

My mom forced me to write a paper on this because she claims I was being "boyish" by wearing sweats and you really helped me.

By Sunny27 — On Jul 12, 2010

Anon37481- I agree with you. Etiquette really entails making those around you feel comfortable. For example, proper etiquette for a hostess of a party might mean to check on guests and possibly get them something to drink.

Etiquette is really about common manners and the writer is absolutely right that when these manners are lacking the recipient of the behavior often feel uncomfortable and uneasy.

This may cause friction in a relationship as well as many other potential hardships because etiquette is expected of us all.

Some people are more forgiving then others and sometimes the person lacking the etiquette simply does not realize the action taken is offensive.

By anon37481 — On Jul 20, 2009

very interesting topic and useful for everyone.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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