As a Certified Image and Etiquette consultant, for over 20 years I’ve watched the definition of etiquette evolve and expand, especially in the world of business.

Thirty years ago, anyone using the word etiquette in everyday speech might have been laughed out of town. Let’s face it; etiquette had a bad rap. It was synonymous with pretension – the Holy Grail of an elite fraternity of social snobs. Rather like curtsying at a debutantes’ ball.

There were exceptions, of course. No one questioned the etiquette of addressing Margaret Thatcher as “Madam Prime Minister” – a clear acknowledgement of respect for the United Kingdom’s first woman elected Prime Minister.

My recent keyword search in the New York Times resulted in 14 articles and blogs that referred to etiquette – all within the last month. Of those, 12 were cross-referenced to business etiquette! Topics ranged from the etiquette of twittering and conducting interviews, to the art of gracefully declining alcohol at business events. The writers all used the word etiquette to express a combination of the right behaviour, courtesy, good form and manners — simultaneously.

Detractors of the word may still dismissively overreact to its usage for anything other than the formalities of which fork to select at a five star restaurant. But the 14 mentions in the NYT included: golfing, surfing, biking and swimming pool etiquette. In a nutshell, sport etiquette!

Clearly, etiquette does not imply formality. Etiquette offers a framework or blueprint for appropriate behaviour according to the environment. Today, “netiquette,” defines the rules of conduct for online communication. UPPER CASE, as we all know, is interpreted as shouting.

The concept of etiquette had it origins in the grandiose days of Versailles. Estiquette is Old French for ticket, sign or label, and during the reign of Louis XIV, zealous palace gardeners installed “Keep off the Grass” signs. Courtiers were encouraged to respect these signs or étiquettes. Before long, the term became the court buzzword for the rules defining a strict code of contrived and highly affected, rigid manners.

Many so-called rules of etiquette were originally based on gallantry. The tradition of a gentleman walking beside the road, with her ladyship closer to the buildings, comes to mind. During the 16th century in England, garbage was often tipped out from the floors above street level. The gesture was to protect women. Yet to many of today’s young urbanites it makes no more sense than our grandparents’ dance cards.

Today, we associate etiquette with correct but not inflexible behaviour — it does, indeed, provide the specifications, or code for modern life. Etiquette is a constant work in progress.

A case in point of the etiquette evolution — is texting at the dinner table appropriate? Read more

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Author's Bio: 

Diane Craig, President of Corporate Class Inc., is a leading image and etiquette consultant. For over 20 years she has provided corporate consultations, helping hundreds of men and women realize their professional and personal goals. She is a sought after speaker at national business meetings, regularly gives comprehensive workshops to corporate groups, and offers private consultations on business etiquette, dress and dining.