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Social Manners & Etiquette

Updated April 17, 2017

Most people think of etiquette and social manners as a set of rigid rules outlining the proper use of silverware and methods of addressing royalty. However, the concept of appropriate social behaviour is actually an evolving system of guidelines intended to facilitate comfortable and enjoyable interactions between individuals and groups.

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Etiquette has its roots in the practices of nobility during the reign of Louis XIV and has become an acceptable standard of behaviour throughout much of Western society. The word itself is French and has a literal meaning of "ticket," implying that proper application of etiquette and social manners can be an individual's ticket or entrance to a higher social status.


Because rules of etiquette are based on considerations of communication and respect, the meaning and definition of social manners have evolved with changes in society. For example, strict rules about when men should remove their hats have become less important as practice of men wearing hats has declined. Social manners have also changed as world societies have become more egalitarian and distinctions among classes and genders have largely faded. Well into the 20th century, the concept of women asserting themselves to approach men was still unacceptable. Yet the significant social changes in the 1960s and 1970s also influenced social manners. In the 21st century it is routine for a woman to make the first move.


Social manners and etiquette apply to behaviour in a variety of situations. Recommended behaviour in business, conversation, dining, religious settings and in the use of technology have developed to guide interactions. The guiding principle in all settings is to treat other people the same way you wish to be treated. Whether you are showing respect by turning off your cell phone during a meeting or demonstrating consideration for your hostess by choosing a specific fork, the aim is still to exhibit respect and compassion for those around you.

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences in social manners and etiquette go beyond language and the question of shaking hands, kissing or bowing. For example, in many Asian cultures it is considered impolite or immodest to accept a compliment. However, Americans routinely respond to compliments by saying, "Thank you," which can seem arrogant in some cultures. Though most rules of social manners are unwritten, increasing global interaction has given rise to books, videos and classes that instruct users on how to be respectful of and show interest in other cultures.

Modern Application

As the speed and amount of interaction has increased with the use of technology and global travel, the need to understand and use social manners has become even more critical. Using e-mail and working collaboratively with colleagues in other countries means many more opportunities to offend or be offended. According to a poll conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs in 2005, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that society in general has become more rude in the last 20 years. Despite this trend, social manners and etiquette are still warranted and expected in all situations.

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About the Author

Nikki Willoughby

Based in Washington, D.C., Nikki Willoughby has been writing since 1996. Her work has been featured in "USA TODAY," "The Wall Street Journal" and in publications and speeches from the White House. Willoughby has a Bachelor of Arts in English and politics from Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C.

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