An Essay on Etiquette Communitea Books Writing Digest

Unraveling Etiquette: Exploring the Decline of A Cardinal Prerequisite

“Honoring those who have gone before and feeling profound responsibility for those to come.”

There’s a Chinese restaurant in Boerne, Texas, called Shang Hai. It was a fairly regular spot for my friends and I to eat when we were in high school, and we would often run into peers while we were there, other kids that were relatively our age that were also meeting at the restaurant to escape campus for an hour. I remember one particular afternoon my friends and I had ordered and were eating, and on the opposite corner of the restaurant another party of high schoolers were seated, and they were loud and disruptive, they were throwing shit, and being needlessly obnoxious. My friends and I carried with us, kind of, a fixed dignity, we believed that we were more mature than most people our age. That afternoon at Shang Hai was an example that I’ve held as a reminder for myself, and one that I have probably used in testimony of the fact a time or two over the years. A societies rebellious youth, for generations, has been somewhat of a rite of passage and, in that sense, I have often looked back on my life and wondered if I was rebellious enough—in retrospect, the answer is most assuredly, “yes”—I also wasn’t a social nuisance. I held on to a certain etiquette that I was raised with, and I think that unconsciously evolved into self-respect, and then into compassion. I’m not sure if there still exists a rebellious youth, because the implication was that rebelliousness was a rite of passage, and now, it seems, that fewer people are exploring these passages of personal growth. Many younger generations might even find the concept of having to develop and grow offensive.

I was coming-of-age during the Clinton and Bush administrations, and most of my generation—which I would pigeonhole somewhere between Generation X and Millennials: there’s an obvious behavioral gap between elder and younger Millennials, I’m among the elders—we were raised under the umbrella of complot politics and we were vocal, and because of Myspace, the newly developing social media platform Facebook, and cell phones, the world got a lot smaller for us very quickly. And our voices were suddenly a lot louder. I don’t know if we were really ready for that. The whole world became concerned about how social media would affect the way we interact with one another in the most “in your face” kind of way. And I watched as a lot of traditional nuances were discarded, among them was the practice of integrity, and a sort of set of educated civilities, that I’m going to call “cardinal prerequisites.” Many of these cardinal prerequisites suddenly became obsolete to a new parenting strategy. In my late teen years, and into my early twenties, I thought, too, that a good bit of what our society was willing to sacrifice might actually be a good thing, I believed that, culturally, we needed to embrace more progressive ideals, and it never once occurred to me that there might be a wrong way to do that. Well, there is a wrong way to do it, and we managed to stumble upon it. One mistake, I think, was that a lot of parents—actually, people, in general—didn’t consider not only the benefits of, but the necessity of how what I call the cardinal prerequisites might evolve with our life experience and introduce important personal and societal behaviors that would present in adulthood.

As I was coming up, I was never particularly priggish. I deemed rules as, hmm—well, I don’t know that they are meant to be broken, but discerned, sure—I recognized the rational of knowing the rules, and keeping them close, as a tool to reference, but, personally, and for instance, I was the type of person that: 1.) skipped a class in high school for nine weeks straight, I just never went, I never met my teacher, I haven’t got a clue who else might have been in the class, and what I did instead was to discover that I could engage the monitor at the school’s entrance—who was supposed to be “monitoring” who might be trying to come into the school as well as keeping students, such as myself, from leaving—in conversation, and as I found a good stopping point in our conversation, he would forget that I wasn’t supposed to leave campus, and I would simply drive away, and 2.) to call my AP English teacher by her first name, she wasn’t all that into that; and, 3.) a friend of mine and I were once told to leave Ashlie’s classroom when he and I refused to spend the class taking an informal exam for a subsequent underclassmen’s standardized test, instead of furthering our own education. I didn’t yet have the tools to articulate why I refused to partake in that particular situation, Cody dictated our thoughts on the back of his exam, and I signed it. I did a lot of processing during my teen years, and into my twenties. And throughout my twenties, in the midst of spontaneously leaving home and aimlessly wandering the country, a marriage, a divorce, some jail time, a couple of relationships that were much, much worse than my marriage, and years of trying to piece together the essence of the same thought behind the eyes of a nursling’s quizzical, yet astonished stare into a budding world, I started developing a compilation of my recognition of life.

Among the many, many things that I started to recognize was that certain traditions—my “cardinal prerequisites:” etiquette, self-respect, discipline, effort, accountability, and respect—act as a kind of an infrastructure for personal growth. Those “sets of rules” instill a more deeply rooted sense of compassion than one might otherwise develop, so the practice of etiquette is far more deliberate than just a boomer’s finger-waving insistence of obedience. Emotional intelligence is what evolves from the cardinal prerequisites; for example, the act of holding the door open for another human being, but not because of timing or for recognition, but rather to acknowledge that they exist in a manner that reflects a shared experience, and then returning the acknowledgement by saying “thank you,” when the door is held open for you. The simple practice of holding open a door has far greater implications than what might appear in a pragmatic sense, and it’s the undertones of those implications that I’m headed toward expressing, if I haven’t already. Etiquette, for example, might plant the seed of respect, and respect might nurtures self-respect, and self-respect may foster compassion, and compassion may then develop accountability, and accountability can act as an unconscious rehearsal for empathy, and empathy realizes a shared experience—it is introspectively impractical to think that you can teach emotional intelligence, it has to be developed. Emotional intelligence grows inasmuch as a flower sprouts and flourishes, you can only plant the seed. You can’t shame a person into being emotionally intelligent, you can’t cancel a person into emotional intelligence, you can’t judge a person into emotional intelligence, and you can’t be conscious of the benefits of being emotionally intelligent and also be a piece of shit. To practice social etiquette is to reflect self-respect, and you cannot have respect for yourself and not own your own truth or abuse your personal freedoms. Let me say that again, you cannot have respect for yourself and still abuse your personal freedoms.

Let’s rewind a couple of hundred years to the late 18th century when the U.S. Constitution reintroduced the thought of personal freedom to a modern world. The concept of freedom wasn’t new, of course; however, it had been centuries since it had been practiced at a national level. The constitution reinvented and standardized the idea of individual freedoms, redeveloping liberty by contract. Another, more affiliated, revolution of freedoms in the 1950’s that we know of as the civil rights movement, this movement was much more concentrated, and paved the way for more tribal ideals of personal rights over the 70’s and 80’s.

I believe that the last fifteen years have introduced yet another revolution of personal freedoms, and this revolution was born abstractly and without definitive intent, and without the “cardinal prerequisites” of cultivated: etiquette, self-respect, discipline, effort, accountability, and respect—although some good has come from this tumultuous revolution, the most obvious of which is that we started to explore the possibility of critical thought when it comes, almost exclusively, to social equality—unfortunately, now we are collectively stuck in an unspecified continuous loop of micro-tribes and large scale politics, cancel culture and social outrage; it’s like we’re trying to autofocus but we don’t know how and where exactly to set our focus. And with many of the people today not having developed the cardinal prerequisites, which helps to establish our emotional intelligence at a young age, this revolution of personal freedoms won’t find real traction for success, and we will sacrifice far more than what we will gain as a society, and I think the consequences are largely responsible for our current state of alarming divisiveness, and immediacy to outrage.

Our personal freedoms are a delicate thing and they have been for all of human history, and, because it’s easier for us to oversimplify and to critique a person or a philosophy, we blame the fragility of our perception of freedoms on a particular person or philosophy. However, understanding why blatant and ambiguous subjection has, and continues to, exist is far more complicated than the fact that there are “bad people,” or ideas that we disagree with. The answer lies somewhere in the nuances of understanding the difference between revering personal freedoms and feeling entitled to them. It’s almost like there's some emotional prerequisite for mentally regulating the promise of personal freedom, for the promise of “owning your truth,” and for the promise of happiness.  

The benefit of practicing and appreciating something as simple as etiquette, for example, teaches us how to pause, and to maybe apply some critical thought to situations where immediate outrage may not be the best approach. It has become quite clear in our society that many refuse to practice etiquette at the personal—or local—level because of their distrust in whatever aspect of “a system” negatively resonates more with them; showing arbitrary hostility to people because of economic or political idealism is an example of how easy it is to abuse as well as just how delicate the observance of personal freedoms can be. And, when applied unconsciously and arbitrarily, the unintended impact can be—and is—rather chaotic.

Etiquette, self-respect, discipline, effort, accountability, and respect are prerequisites because each teaches us how to explore our imaginations, our creativity, our empathy, and compassion, and art, and the thing is that not one of these aspects of emotional intelligence are on a timer or a switch, we cannot turn them off and on conveniently in those situations that suit our sensibilities, we are either in tune with them or we are not. If you have not learned how to practice some degree of social etiquette without egoistic intent, then you are very far from being “in tune” with your inner child or your higher self, the conductor of emotional intelligence. The nature of our higher self isn’t predicated by political affiliation. Hate is and begets only hate; nature does not discern between hate and righteous hate. Imagination, creativity, empathy, compassion, and art are cultivated within nature, and by nature; these do not exist because of the ingenuity of man, we are who we are because of them, and without them, well, I don’t want to imagine what we would become (although we are on the right path to the wrong place). I believe that we are sacrificing etiquette, self-respect, discipline, effort, accountability, and respect and as a result we’re in short supply of compassion, empathy, and genuine art. For example, animosity and distrust, which are currently leading the drive of our ongoing social revolution, are the wrong prerequisites for owning “our truths,” and for exploring our personal freedoms. Self-respect, however, is an example of a necessary prerequisite for understanding and learning to practice freedom, there is no room for judgement if we are all individually empowering ourselves and exploring our personal freedoms.

Some life experiences can damage us, I can speak from candid experience, and with every trauma and pain we add another layer of security and it’s usually an unconscious anesthetic because if we were conscious, we would, instead, be learning how to live with the pain, not in spite of the pain, but with the pain. The more unique experiences that we have in life the more opportunity we have to explore how we feel about a thing without the manipulation of outside influence. We learn to allocate some time to meditate critically about what it means to respect ourselves, as well as the principles of nature. People started demanding personal respect and freedom without understanding the benefits of aspiring for a thing, without understanding the reward of cardinal prerequisites, and without recognizing that change—is like a seed, it’s a question of nurture—and as that change relates to a society, just like it might for an individual, it takes practice and effort and time. We have to learn to spend some time with ourselves, and to learn to quiet our minds and to explore the space in that stillness, and when you start to feel comfortable in that space and with yourself being in that calm, you’ll start to seek out those buried traumas and the pain and you’ll teach yourself how to mend it, and then one day you will realize that you have risen above the pain, and it’s only there that we’ll find some semblance of acceptance.

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