The earliest recorded codification of ideal social practices may be found in the 3rd millennium BC in the writings of Ptahhotep, a vizier in ancient Egypt, who stressed the importance of civil virtues towards others. The Chinese philosopher Confucius was the next to emphasize the need for morality to permeate all aspects of life, although he also branched out to discuss rules for eating and speaking. In the 17th century, King Louis XIV of France transformed these maxims into a means to broadcast his supremacy. Amid the ostentatious palace of Versailles, this French monarch encouraged the nobility to adopt highly-technical manners that would elevate them above the masses.

That’s the short and sweet background on etiquette. Read on for the explanations behind some of today’s customs.


Shaking hands

Dating back to Ancient Greece – a civilization that seems to be the source of many modern Western customs – this greeting was a sign of equality and mutual respect. It replaced signs of subservience, namely bows and curtsies, while also serving as proof that both parties came unarmed. In medieval Europe, the handshake became a powerful symbol of the bond between husband and wife. It was the final gesture of wedding ceremonies.

“Bless you!”

It’s almost as much of a reflex as sneezing itself. Here in the United States, when someone sneezes, “Bless you” will often be heard immediately after. Upon reflection, it is a strange custom. We don’t acknowledge similar bodily functions with such grandeur. So how did this response originate? Some cultural anthropologists point to the Greeks and Romans for starting this fascination with sneezing. They viewed it as a sign of wellness – a means of expelling bad spirits from the body – and would routinely offer blessings unto the sneezer. However, centuries later, widespread fears brought on by the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1330 cast suspicion on the sneeze. Pope Gregory VII called on the people of Europe to utter a short prayer, “Bless you”, after every sneeze to protect against the sickness.

Continental or American?

As all of our ASP grads know, there is a stark difference in dining styles once you cross the Atlantic. In the United States, a “Zig-Zag” method is used, while our European neighbors predominantly eat “Continental.” It is surprising to learn that the traditional European method was in fact this American style. The modern dining divide resulted when British colonists sailed across the Atlantic, bringing their multi-step cutting method to the New World. The colonists retained this dining style, but back in Europe, the Industrial Revolution brought a faster pace of life that left little room for the niceties and courtesies of the previous era, leading to the more streamlined Continental style.

Elbows off!

“Don’t put your elbows on the table!” The origin of this classic motherly adage dates back to medieval times. Feasts were held in great halls and hundreds of people would eat together at long wooden tables. While the food was often plentiful, space was not. Furthermore, when dining in the presence of the lords and ladies of the realm, it was deemed “peasant-like” to hunch over one’s plate, guarding the food from others. The act gave off an aura of distrust, and has since become a commonly repeated rule.

Clinking glasses

After a toast, it is tradition to clink glasses with fellow diners. This iconic act of celebration comes from a morbid past. It was started with the intention of spilling a little of the other person’s drink into your own to demonstrate that neither party had poisoned the other’s glass. The clink was a sign of good will, a feeling that has endured to today.

‘Mask’-ing recognition

While some of the customs from long ago have remained fixtures in our modern society, there are many that have faded into obscurity. For example, for hundreds of years in medieval Europe, there were standards for interacting with people in masks. It was considered impolite to display recognition of the person behind the mask, and etiquette of the era dictated to instead feign ignorance of their true identity.


As members of the ASP community, we all certainly know how to do these things, but not necessarily why we do them! It is truly interesting to trace our everyday behaviors – many of which we don’t give a second thought – back to their origins.

It’s long overdue, but we’ve found the antidote to last week’s chilling etiquette horror stories. In hopes of courtesy redemption, we searched the Web for shining examples of the compassion and consideration of strangers. Enjoy!

Welcome mat cut out

A family of four – a mother, father, and a set of newborn twins – was flying to New Jersey. The thoughtful parents had made little goody bags with candies and earplugs to hand out to their fellow passengers. In each, they had written a note that said: “Hello! We’re twin baby boys on our first flight and we’re only 14 weeks old. We’ll try to be on our best behavior, but we’d like to apologize in advance just in case we lose our cool, get scared, or our ears hurt. We hope you have a great flight.”

Traveling with infants is not an ideal situation – the parents are stressed, the babies are scared, and people around the family often get agitated. However, this couple’s thoughtful token demonstrated their desire to improve the atmosphere for all. And while we may not prepare bags of treats for strangers around us, showing consideration for others in simpler ways is a sure sign of empathy and class.

A woman at our yard sale was wearing a perfume that smelled heavenly and familiar. I asked her what it was, and by a near-magical coincidence, it was the perfume my late mother had given me every year for Christmas. The fond memories I had of my mother flooded back to me. The woman and I chatted for a bit, and then she bought a few items and left. A few hours later, she returned holding a brand-new bottle of that perfume. I don’t recall which one of us started crying first. We still talk to this day.

How touching that this stranger would go out of her way to delight someone else. In the words of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven't yet met.” The woman in this story embodies this ideology by treating a stranger as she would a close friend. This story captures how long-lasting relationships can evolve from simple, thoughtful acts… the greatest reward!

 

Two firefighters were in line at a fast-food restaurant ahead of me when the siren started blaring on their firetruck outside. As they turned to leave, a couple handed their food to the firefighters. The couple then got back in line to reorder. To top it all off, the manager refused to take their money for their second order. Truly a selfless day!

Portrait of two firefighters by a fire engine

These customers’ willingness to so quickly give up their own meals shows their respect and gratitude towards those who risk their lives to help others. And although a “thank you” can go a long way in brightening another’s day, in this case, their actions truly spoke louder than words.

1983-s-washington-quarterIt was the 1970’s and I was five years old. I was sitting on one of the mechanical rocking horses outside of Woolworth's, waiting for my mom to finish shopping. A lady walked by and put a quarter in to make it rock back and forth. I was over the moon! It is a moment of pure joy that I've remembered vividly. I still even remember what that glorious kind stranger looked like.

Although they never met again, this woman’s touching gesture placed her permanently in this person’s memory. She was immortalized by her small act of generosity. Anonymous kindness is kindness in its purest form. Some of the best people are those we will never hear about – those who do selfless acts without the need for public recognition.

 

A couple years back, I flew to Ireland with a friend to watch a rugby game. There had been a fire in one of the stadium sections, so that area had to be closed down. We had tickets in that section, so we couldn’t see the game; our whole trip was ruined. We were at a pub when we heard the news. A local 10-year-old kid heard us talking about it, and turns to his dad and says, "They can have our tickets. We can always come to see a game.”

What a shining reflection of good parenting! When a child recognizes the power of spontaneous generosity, it shows the values and virtues that are demonstrated at home. How rewarding it must have been for this dad to see his son display such selflessness.

 

When I was 6 years old, I was at the beach when a sandstorm kicked up. My little sister and I were crying because the sand was getting in our eyes and stinging our exposed skin. But then, this really big guy stood behind us to stop the sand from hitting us. It's not a big thing, but I remember it meant a lot to me in that moment.

The last line of this memory captures the major takeaway from all these tales. Many of these acts are relatively small – they’re not stories of complicated charity or grandiose gifts. They show the huge impact that a little kindness can have in the lives of others. Compassion is one of humanity’s greatest treasures; it is what allows us to make connections to others. These stories of everyday people reaching out to touch the lives of strangers captures the beauty we all hold inside us. We took these tales to heart, and encourage our readers to join us in spreading happiness and kindness in the little things we do every day.