What Is Etiquette and Why Is It Important?

Smiling friends walking into backyard party with trays of food
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The foundation of proper etiquette is behavior that is accepted as gracious and polite in social, professional, and family situations. Good manners can mean the difference between success and failure in many aspects of life. Knowing and exhibiting proper etiquette is essential to any civilization. 

Fun Facts

The practice of saying "Bless you" to a person who sneezes dates back to the era of Pope Gregory I in 590 CE, when he commanded that a person who sneezes needs to be blessed in case they had the Plague.

Family Etiquette

The place to start with etiquette is at home with the family. When you get married, you instinctively know you are better off getting along with your new in-laws, so you show them that you are poised and gracious. You’ve also learned that your spouse responds better when you say, “Please,” and, “Thank you,” than when you issue an order and refuse to acknowledge cooperation. Children who are taught good manners and to respect their parents take their lessons out into the world.

Basic etiquette rules for family members:

  • Respect each other’s personal space and don't crowd them.
  • Respect each other’s belongings.
  • Don’t interrupt when someone else is talking.
  • Be on time for dinner.
  • Use polite language such as “Please” and “Thank you.”
  • Don’t text or talk on your cell phone during a family meal.
  • Chew with your mouth closed.
  • Don’t yell or call each other names.
  • Pick up after yourself so someone else doesn’t have to do it.
  • Listen to Mom and Dad and do what they say.
  • Be cautious with your children's images and comments on social media.

Social Etiquette

Social etiquette involves how you behave out in the public, with friends and strangers, whether you are at someone's home, at the symphony, or in a restaurant. If you treat your friends and neighbors with respect, you are more likely to remain on their lists of people they trust, care about, and invite to parties. It also prevents you from being embarrassed later by behavior that was unbecoming or offensive. This includes social media, which can magnify your behavior.

Basic social etiquette rules:

  • Always be on time for dates and get-togethers. Showing up late is rude and shows a lack of respect for other people’s time.
  • Make eye contact when you are in a conversation with someone. Avoid looking over the other person’s shoulder unless you see potential danger.
  • Never interrupt the other person.
  • Give and receive compliments graciously.
  • Refuse to gossip with and about friends. After all, if you share gossip with someone, that person will wonder what you are saying behind his or her back.
  • Hold doors for anyone who seems to be struggling, including physically challenged people and parents with young children.
  • When you are invited to a party, don’t show up empty-handed. Bring a host or hostess gift and something to share.
  • If you are sick and contagious, let the other person know. It is generally best to postpone your plans and reschedule after you are feeling better since it is rude to knowingly expose your friends to illness.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze.
  • Pay your share when you are with a friend or group. If you stiff your friends, they may not invite you again. This includes tipping.

Basic social media etiquette rules:

  • Never post anything on any forum that you wouldn’t want the world to see.
  • Avoid put-downs, regardless of how witty you think you are.
  • Don’t divulge too much information about yourself or your family. You can never be sure who all is watching. This includes posting dates you’ll be out of town and when you are hiring a teenage sitter to watch your children. You must protect your family.
  • Self-promotion is okay in limited amounts. There are others who need your attention, so take some time to respond to their posts and offer praise when needed.
  • If you make a mistake on social media, own it. Offer a sincere apology and avoid doing it again.
  • Follow the rules of whatever social media you are using.

Professional Etiquette

Following professional etiquette allows others to see that you are a polite, civilized coworker who knows how to be nice and can represent the company in a positive way. If you don’t show good manners, you run the risk of ruining your reputation. This can prevent you from being promoted and in some cases may even get you fired.

Basic professional etiquette rules:

  • Always arrive on time.
  • Dress appropriately for your office environment.
  • Never interrupt conversations unless there's an emergency.
  • If you must eat at your desk, and you work in a cubicle, avoid foods with strong odors.
  • Remove papers from the copier and scanner after you are finished with the task.
  • Shake hands when appropriate.
  • Don't become the office chatterbox because you'll annoy people while they're working.
  • Praise others for a job well done.
  • Never take credit for other people’s work.
  • Be friendly to clients, visitors, and guests. Offer them a comfortable seat if they have to wait.
  • Use your indoor voice and avoid yelling.
  • If someone else is angry, refuse to join in an argument or rant.
  • Don’t touch other people’s personal belongings.
  • Observe proper etiquette with regard to personal space.
  • Participate in office donations, but don’t make an issue of how much or how little you give.
  • Keep office correspondence brief and avoid interjecting personal opinions unless it is necessary.
  • Maintain a professional image when decorating your office or cubicle.
  • When socializing with your coworkers, don’t do anything you don’t want to be mentioned at the office later.