The Origin of Etiquette

Etiquette used to mean “keep off the grass”. When Louis XIV’s gardener at Versailles discovered that the aristocrats were trampling though his gardens, he put up signs, or étiquets, to warn them off, but dukes and duchesses walked right past the signs anyway. Finally, the king himself had to decree that no one was to go beyond the bounds of the étiquets. The meaning of etiquette later was expanded to include the ticket to court functions that listed the rules on where to stand and what do do.

Like language, etiquette continues to evolve, but in a sense it still means “keep off the grass”. When we stay within the flexible bounds of etiquette we give relationships a chance to grow, we give ourselves a chance to grow and we are better able to present ourselves with confidence and authority in all areas of our professional and personal life.

Until the ‘60s, teaching good manners was considered an integral part of a child’s upbringing. Public and private schools included etiquette as part of a well-rounded curriculum, while charm schools specialized in teaching social graces, poise and table manners.

The liberated ‘60s and’70s brought about a decline in the popularity of etiquette programs. However, a renewed interest in traditional values during the ‘80s, ‘90s and today, along with the fierce competition in the business arena, has made etiquette a critical tool which provides a competitive edge.

Protocol has been observed as early as 2000 B.C. when the ancient Egyptians produced the first known book on the subject, titled, The Instructions of Ptahhotep. The book is preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and is known as the Prisse Papyrus (after the name of its donor to the library).

The term “protocol’ is derived from two Greek works, protos meaning “the first” and kolla meaning “glue”. Protocollum (also spelled protokollon) refers to a sheet of paper glued to the front of a notarial document giving it authenticity. Protocollum soon came to mean the process of drawing up official public documents and eventually, it meant the documents themselves. By the nineteenth century, the French term protocole diplomatique or protocole de la Chancellerie referred to the body of ceremonial rules to be observed in all written and personal official interaction between heads of different states or their ministers. Today, the word protocol serves as a code of international politeness that blends diplomatic form with cermony and etiquette. In today’s business arena, the term protocol is often used in place of etiquette because it sounds more businesslike and more official. Many companies have established their own rules of protocol as part of their culture to ensure smooth daily operation.

Today, the personal and professional demands placed upon the North American business executive in the international arena surpass any experienced in the past. The savvy executive must know how to explore foreign markets, develop opportunities abroad, and master the techniques of conducting business in very different cultures. Like it or not, management equates good manners with competence in business and poor manners with incompetence. With recent media attention addressing the lack of etiquette in the corporate environment, many leading financial institutions have taken steps to bring manners and protocol back into the workplace. The effort one makes in setting a good example raises the bar for the conduct of others. As said by Sydney Smith, “Manners are like the shadows of virtues, they are the momentary display of those qualities which our fellow creatures love and respect.”

From an article written by Dorothea Johnson, Protocol School of Washington