Etiquette in North America
||This article contains instructions, advice, or how-to content. (April 2013)|
Both Canada and the United States have shared cultural and linguistic heritage originating in Europe, and as such some points of traditional European etiquette apply to both, especially in more formal settings; however, each have formed their own etiquettes as well.
Among the most prominent writers on North American etiquette are Meloise, Letitia Baldrige, Judith Martin, Emily Post, Elizabeth Post, Peggy Post, Gertrude Pringle, and Amy Vanderbilt.
- 1 Principles
- 2 General standards
- 3 Private life
- 4 Public interactions
- 5 See also
- 6 References
Judith Martin states that if one wishes to become an accepted member of any society or group, one "had better learn to practice its etiquette."
Early North American etiquette books claimed that the manners and customs of the "Best Society" could be imitated by all, although some authors lamented that the lower classes, meaning those "whose experience in life has been a hardening process," in fact treated the rules of etiquette with "contempt and ... a sneer." Current etiquette books do not employ the concept of "best society," but rather define etiquette as a set of guidelines that "help steer our behavior as we move through our daily routines" and that can help deal with "the pressures of modern life [which] make it all the more difficult to stay civil." This change is reflected in the content of etiquette books; etiquette books published in the early 20th century contained detailed advice on the treatment of servants, the conducting of formal dinner parties, and the behavior of a debutante; more modern books are likely to emphasize the importance of respecting people of all classes, races, and ethnic backgrounds. Some books make a further distinction between etiquette and manners:
Etiquette is protocol, rules of behavior that you memorize and that rarely bend to encompass individual concerns and needs. Manners embrace socially acceptable behavior, of course, but also much more than that. They are an expression of how you treat others when you care about them, their self-esteem, and their feelings.
Etiquette writers assert that etiquette rules, rather than being stuffy or classist, serve to make life more pleasant.
Though etiquette rules may seem arbitrary at times and in various situations, these are the very situations in which a common set of accepted customs can help to eliminate awkwardness. While etiquette is often a means to make others feel comfortable, it is also the case that etiquette can serve to eliminate inappropriate behaviors in others by increasing discomfort.
These etiquette topics are relevant in both the United States and Canada and pertain to basic interactions in society. It is understood that these are general rules to which, in certain contexts and depending on the expectations of the parties involved, there may be exceptions.
One should attempt to suppress yawning in polite company, concealing the mouth with the back of the hand. Also, sneezing into a hanky, tissue, or side of your sleeve is expected, rather than turning or sneezing into the open air.
Eating is a good time to socialize, and is also the time when others notice manners. Instead of reaching across for food, simply ask the nearest person to the dish "Please pass the-" and say the name of the food. Placing your elbows on the table also isn't polite. When you begin eating, place your napkin across your lap, and remember to sit up straight. Also, before leaving the table at a special or more formal event, say "Excuse me, I have to go for a moment." Or for children, "May I be excused from the table?" Eating with each utensil is from the outside in. Normally the fork is held in the left, while the knife is in the right, used for cutting harder pieces of the food. With few exceptions, making loud noises while eating and chewing with one's mouth open are considered rude.
Using standard language and grammar is always smiled upon, and in some situations, using non-standard, or colloquial language may be frowned upon. . Others hearing profanity in a public place may be angry, especially if they have children with them. In some places, using inappropriate language such as profanity will have you escorted out.
Privacy and personal space
In contrast with many countries with higher population density, an arm's length is the normal "comfort zone" of personal space between unrelated individuals. Strangers who attempt conversation within an arm's length almost universally induce discomfort in the target and may be perceived as intoxicated, hostile, or sexually motivated.
Smoking in America is not as common as it once was, and recent smoking bans for either indoor locations or (in some cases) outdoor areas in the vicinity of a doorway, are now widespread. In most places smoking is now banned in all public buildings, including restaurants and bars; many other locations have attempted to ban outdoor smoking (such as on restaurant patios or outside doorways) outside of "designated smoking areas", but have met with mixed enforcement and support. A good policy is to avoid smoking in all public indoor areas and observe for accoutrements (such as signs and standing ashtrays) in outdoor areas which designate a "smoking area".
Names and forms of address
When first introduced to someone, one should address and be addressed as Miss, Ms., Mrs. or Mr. followed by the surname. Only children should be addressed by first name. Once a relationship has been established, one may request to be addressed by first name. In particular formal situations, such a request can be considered a great sign of trust and intimacy.
While professional, academic, religious, military and political titles, such as "Judge", "Colonel", "Mayor", "Reverend", "Senator", "Doctor", and "Professor" are often used in social situations, Miss, Ms., Mrs. or Mr. are also considered appropriate, especially when one is unaware of such credentials. If the person offers their first name upon introductions, it is considered rude to continue to refer to them as 'Mr.' or 'Mrs.' in direct conversation, as it is seen as standoff-ish.
The stand-alone honorifics Miss (for ladies) and Sir (for gentlemen) may be used for a person whose surname is unknown, though any person's personal preference should be honored once it is made known.
It is generally considered rude to spontaneously correct others (such as in the area of grammar, pronunciation, etc.) especially in public, unless the correction is mild and a pre-established relationship is involved. While other cultures may view correcting or offering criticism to others as a way of showing respect through honesty, North Americans can often be caught off-guard, insulted or embarrassed by such exchanges, especially if the one offering it is not a close friend, where their statements (though true) may be viewed as concealed hostility. Unless one is correcting a close friend and in a light-hearted spirit, it is best to avoid criticism in public.
North Americans tend to smile frequently in public, make eye contact with people they see on the street, and otherwise show a friendly, happy and approachable demeanor, even towards those they do not know. Again, this may be seen as "superficial" or "fake", but it is rather a result of their deeply ingrained desire to make people feel welcome, happy and comfortable. If someone looks directly at a North American and smiles, the North American will very likely return the glance and smile back. This is not necessarily an invitation to approach them, nor is it a superficiality without meaning; it is simply due to the fact that it would be considered rude and/or unfriendly to not return this social grace.
Gifts, while not to be expected, are a common offering in many social situations. A gift should be graciously accepted by the recipient, the giver should receive a prompt and written thank you shortly thereafter, and a reciprocation of the gift is recommended.
It is inappropriate for a lady to accept monetary gifts or other from a gentleman that she is not or do not intend to be romantically involved with and vise versa.
- Hospitality requires that when extending an invitation as a host, one anticipates and provides for the needs of the invited guests. "Strings" may not be attached to the invitation. Guest responsibilities include dressing appropriately to the occasion, and providing one's own transportation and lodging. As a courtesy, the host may include dress instructions. (See section on weddings for details on standard North American attire). A host cannot expect a guest to pay for part of the event or function, such as a portion of a birthday honoree's meal or gift.
Generally, etiquette writers consider it incorrect to include any suggestion that gifts are, or even could have been, expected at a hosted event, and therefore no mention of gift registries or other prohibitive or prescriptive statements on an invitation are permitted, such as "Monetary gifts only," or "No gifts, please." If a guest inquires himself, such things may only then be brought up by the host. Only overnight guests should feel obliged to bring a gift for the host.
An invitation is meant only for the people to whom it is addressed. "Mr. and Mrs. Jones" does not mean "Mr. and Mrs. Jones and any of their relatives they may wish to bring." If wishing to invite additional family members, the host should not add "... and Family," but instead should be specific rather than have the invitees guess what exactly this means. Individuals may decline or accept invitations extended to multiple persons. For example, a woman may accept an invitation extended to her entire family, even if the husband and children must send regrets (all in the same letter to the host). Invitations for mixed social events, such as parties, weddings, etc., must be extended to the established significant others of any invitees, such as spouses, fiancés, or long time or live-in boy/girlfriends. The significant other must be invited by name, and the host should inquire if it is not known. If the couple does not live together, the host should inquire as to the partner's full name and address and send a separate invitation for formal occasions. If a person's socially established partner has not been invited, etiquette allows him or her to politely request that the host do so. Persons without socially established partners may not request to bring a guest, nor is a host expected to invite singles to bring a date (i.e., "[Invitee] and Guest").
- When receiving an invitation, one is obliged to respond in kind as soon as possible. This means if receiving the invitation by phone, reply by phone, etc. One must accept or decline even if "RSVP" is not specified. To not do so is an insult to the host. Accepting an invitation is making a commitment. If one cannot be sure if the obligation can be kept, the invitation should be declined. "Maybe" is not an acceptable response, as it insinuates one would like to accept, but wants to keep his options open in case "something better" comes along. One can never cancel once one has offered or accepted hospitality. Traditionally, the only reasons considered acceptable were illness or death in the immediate family. As etiquette no longer applies only to those in high society, an extremely important work obligation which intervenes is also an acceptable reason. In any case of cancellation, notification to the host or guest must be immediate, with profuse apologies.
Most formally, invitations are hand-written, but for large numbers, such as for weddings, engraved or printed invitations are acceptable, though less formal. Printing is considered less appropriate than "frank and honest" handwriting. Engraved invitations, which are more expensive than printed ones, are shipped with protective tissue paper to prevent wet ink from smudging, but as the ink has dried by the time they are received by the hosts, they should be removed before mailing to guests, and etiquette authorities consider their inclusion to be improper and a form of bragging.
Emily Post's Etiquette gives examples of the traditional forms for formal and informal invitations; granddaughter Peggy Post provides updated examples of the forms in Etiquette (17th edition) that take into account non-traditional social relationships.
Reply cards, with or without postage, may be included with an invitation according to some etiquette writers, though they need not be. However, Judith Martin calls response cards "vulgar", as they imply the guest would not reply without being prompted to do so. She advocates discarding them and replying on one's own stationery, while Peggy Post suggests that guests use them if included, to avoid interfering with the host's card collection system. Some say maps, directions, websites, and other information may be included. Others note that these are not formal aspects of an invitation, and therefore should not be included in formal invitations, and those who accept should instead later be sent the information via informal communication, such as postal mail, phone, or the internet. At-home cards may be included with wedding invitations. Traditionally, they announced the bride and groom's new address; they are now more likely to be used to announce the couple's choice of surnames. All etiquette authorities agree that gift registry information may not be sent with any type of invitation, however informal.
Thank you letters
A written acknowledgement is required for all gifts received, large or small. The acknowledgement should mention the gift specifically, how it will be used, and should be sent to the giver promptly, usually within two weeks of receipt of the gift. Though pre-printed thank you cards are commonly used, a handwritten note or letter is acceptable as well and is often considered more personal. In a business context, a typed letter is customary and should be signed by hand.
When visiting someone's home it is customary to bring a hostess gift, such as wine, chocolates, a floral arrangement, and sometimes food for dessert. The purpose of such an offering is a recognition of the hospitality extended by the host.
Bringing and serving food
A host should graciously accept and put aside a hostess gift of food or wine for another time. There is no expectation of serving the gift offered.
- See also "Gifts" and "Invitations" sections
Weddings are often an occasion for particular concern about etiquette; and for some people, weddings are the only time when etiquette becomes a concern. In general, etiquette writers state that a wedding should be one more occasion for the exercise of thoughtfulness towards others, and thus a wedding is not, as is often said, "my special day" (a term "which seems to sanction selfishness"), "her day," or "their day," but an event to be enjoyed by all invited to be present. In keeping with this expectation, etiquette writers make a number of prescriptions regarding the conduct of weddings and wedding planning.
Etiquette writers agree that the first step in planning a wedding should be selecting the guest list, not deciding on the type of wedding to be held. This is because others' enjoyment of the celebration should be a priority, not one's personal desires or fantasies, or as Judith Martin said, "The guest list should have priority over the arrangements, which is to say that you ask first who should be there, and then what you can afford to feed them, rather than the other way around." Traditionally, "the guest list was divided equally between the bride's and the groom's families and friends, but this is no longer considered necessary."
Likewise, etiquette writers prescribe that the selection of a bridal party should be based on interpersonal closeness to the bride or to the groom. In the past, women were most likely to choose female attendants, and likewise for the groom and males, but "friendship [should be] the chief factor, not gender" in selecting attendants. Each member of the bridal party should stand with the person to whom he or she is closest. Terms such as "man of honor," "bridesmen," "groomswomen," and "best woman" are used when appropriate. A bridal party is not, in Judith Martin's words, a "chorus line," and therefore the bridal party needn't consist of either equal numbers on each side, nor equal numbers of men and women.
Guests should not be expected to wait for an extended period of time between the ceremony and reception, and should be fed a meal if the reception and/or ceremony is during normal meal times. However, while hosts must supply beverages of some sort, they are considered under no obligation to provide alcohol. Those who do so are obliged to provide neither unlimited nor specific types of alcohol. Cash bars are considered inappropriate by etiquette writers, on the grounds that it is inappropriate to ask guests to pay for anything and because "true hospitality shares what it has. It does not attempt to give what it has not." While commonly seen in reception rooms, a cash bar indicates that the host believes the guests should have access to drinks, but is not willing to pay for them. Judith Martin suggests that if one cannot afford to serve liquor at the reception, "... serve tea or punch. If you can't afford that, serve water. But serve it graciously."
While in the past it was customary for the bride's parents to pay for the wedding, today, "[t]he days when the bride's parents were expected to bear all the expenses of the wedding and reception are over." In 1922 Emily Post had called it an "unalterable rule" that the wedding be given always by the bride's parents, never by the groom or his parents. Others believe that while this was the custom, it was simply a voluntary gesture of the bride's parents.
The bride may wear any color, although since the 19th century first-time brides often choose to wear white, especially in a white wedding (a specific wedding routine, often taking place inside a church). The idea that white signifies the bride's virginity has long since been abandoned, but the rule that others present should avoid white has not.
Men and women in the bridal party should dress to the same level of formality as the bride and groom, but need not wear matching suits, dresses, or colors. While black attire has become common for female wedding party members, not all etiquette writers believe this is a correct selection. Peggy Post writes that "[v]irtually all colors are acceptable today, including black and shades of white." Others, such as Judith Martin, argue that in North American culture "black symbolizes death....[A] great many people are still shocked to see it at weddings, even on guests, because it gives them tragic associations."
Guests and gifts
- While gifts are customarily given, they are not to be expected by the recipient. Guests are under no obligation to spend a particular amount of money - enough to cover the supposed cost of their meal, for example - or to buy a particular gift, from a gift registry, for instance. Authorities differ on when a gift should be given; some say that guests have up to a year to give a gift, while others state that a gift should be given before or as soon after the wedding as possible.
- Guests should not expect to receive party favors. It is considered improper for hosts to announce that they have made a charitable donation "in lieu of favors" as this is the broadcasting of a private matter which would normally not be discussed with others.
- Though common in some circles, asking guests "where their envelope is," wishing wells, and money dances are considered vulgar by North American etiquette authorities, as they are blatant indications that cash gifts are expected from the guests. A wedding party member who is given an envelope by a guest should briefly thank the guest and discreetly put it away. Any guest being asked for such an item should politely state that he or she has already arranged for a gift.
It is proper to hold a door open for someone behind you. If someone opens or holds a door open for you, it is proper to thank them. It is proper to step aside and wait for people exiting an elevator car, subway, train, bus, etc. before boarding.
If seating is limited (or there is standing-room only) in public transportation or waiting areas, it is proper for people in good health to offer their seats to an elderly person and to those with special needs, such as the frail, disabled, people with infants, and pregnant women. Disabilities, however, are not always visible, so it would be improper to assume someone is in good health and to ask them to give up a seat.
- Etiquette in Africa
- Etiquette in Asia
- Etiquette in Australia and New Zealand
- Etiquette in Europe
- Etiquette in Latin America
- Etiquette in the Middle East
- Worldwide etiquette
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