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No matter how wealthy, attractive or powerful you are, according to the authors of "Better than Beauty: A Guide to Charm," none of these will redeem you from the unflattering label of being boorish, rude or insensitive to the feelings of others. While the practice of good manners has dismally diminished with the rise of technology and the dissolution of traditional families, a polite and refined demeanor is still an attribute appreciated in social and business situations.
Courtesy and Respect
Socially correct behavior is all about observing The Golden Rule you learned in childhood -- treating others the way you want to be treated. This means acknowledging their presence with a pleasant greeting, always remembering to say "please" and "thank you," respecting their privacy, opinions and possessions, and being a thoughtful and considerate guest, whether it is for a dinner or a weekend stay. Opening doors, giving up your seat on public transportation or simply lending a helpful hand to someone in need without anyone asking are all demonstrations of proper manners. To this etiquette list is added the necessity of giving others your undivided attention by not texting, taking or making cell phone calls, or reading a book while they're trying to interact with you.
Just because you have many things to say doesn't mean you're entitled to dominate every conversation, constantly interrupt others when they're talking, or engage in loud, abrasive arguments if someone disagrees with you. If you are a socially refined person, you understand why you have one mouth and two ears and use them accordingly to encourage others, keep an open mind, eschew gossip and practice discretion. The authors of "Social Graces: Manners, Conversation, and Charm for Today" advise that you not only avoid controversial topics when meeting others for the first time but that you steer clear as well of personal questions that might make them uncomfortable. If you inadvertently offend someone or make a mistake, the socially responsible thing to do is apologize as soon as possible.
Everyone likes to know they are appreciated for kindnesses they have performed, writes Peggy Post, author of "Emily Post's Etiquette." Whether it's a card, a present or a favor, there's no excuse for not taking the time to express what it meant to you. In an earlier era, this was by way of a handwritten note. The advent of technology, however, has reduced this simple courtesy to emails, voice mails, text messages or, sadly, no "thank you" at all. No matter how busy you are, keep in mind it will probably take you less time to compose a thoughtful response than it took your recipient to do the kind deed initially. Another important tradition that has fallen by the wayside is the gracious acknowledgment of social invitations. Never leave your host hanging by failing to RSVP or, worse, bringing along uninvited guests.
If you dine with other people, focus on making it a pleasant experience for everyone at the table. They may not act persnickety if you accidentally use the wrong fork. However, they will notice if you talk with your mouth full, chew with your mouth open, park your elbows on the table, take more food than everyone else, burp, belch and slurp, or do a farmhouse reach across the table for something rather than asking someone to please pass it to you. They'll also notice if you're rude to the wait staff, wad up your cloth napkin and plunk it on top of the remains of your meal, floss your teeth, leave the table without requesting to be excused, or -- if you're a male -- sit down before all of the ladies sit first.
How you behave in the privacy of your home is often different from how you act once you step outside your front door. Social graces dictate your being mindful of how others perceive both you and your actions. Talking or yelling loudly, engaging in inappropriate displays of affection, spitting on sidewalks, littering, playing loud music, swearing or cutting ahead of others in lines are all discourteous behaviors. If you travel abroad, you must also follow the codes of conduct observed by other cultures. Consider your physical appearance as well. Dressing inappropriately and/or smelling badly are not the trademarks of a well-bred person. No matter your age, education or social status, modesty and cleanliness are always in fashion.
- "Better than Beauty: A Guide to Charm"; H Valentine, A Thompson, Emery I. Gondor; 2002
- "Emily Post's Etiquette"; Peggy Post; 2004
- "Social Graces: Manners, Conversation, and Charm for Today"; Ann Platz, Susan Wales, Kathryn Andrews Fincher; 1999
- Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images