Mark Minster • faculty writer

Of the four related words, “etiquette,” “courtesy,” “civility,” and “politeness,” I have favorites, and yet really I’d prefer to ditch them all. Ditch the words, that is, not the underlying idea. Certainly I want my kid to chew with his mouth shut and know it’s rude to belch or ask someone how he got so fat. I want the boy to be alert. I want him to be kind. I want that for myself. I want that from us all.

“Courtesy” and “etiquette” come from the royal courts of France. They’re about how to behave at the king’s table, in the presence of sovereigns and potentates, the powers-that-be. To courtesy is to bow to one’s betters. An etiquette is a label on a wine bottle, a king’s seal of approval, and it’s the source of the English word “ticket.” It betokens admission to hobnob with blue-bloods. Both French-derived words connote obeisance to the affluent, sucking up to the haves.

“Civility” and “politeness,” by contrast, are abstractions derive from Latin and Greek words for cities: civitas and polis. They’re about how to behave in streets and marketplaces, in forums and in the agora. They’re about the civic virtues of citizenship and urbanity, and suggest the presence not of betters but of peers. Both words still connote a distance from others: I may be loving with my wife, but I’m hardly merely civil. (File under: TMI.) I’m not polite to my kid, either: I’m longsuffering and busted open and fond. Civility is a particular virtue for acquaintances and strangers. And while politeness spreads a little more easily than civility to family and friends, it’s still hard to get close to.

It’s fitting, perhaps, that none of these four terms is native to English; all are imported. I take this curious fact to mean not that the Anglefolc and Jutes lacked concepts for how to behave, but that the Saxons’ pithy, gritty tongue knew names we now seem not to know.

Take “neighborliness,” for example, my favorite Anglo-Saxon replacement for “etiquette.” A “neighbor” is someone who dwells nearby, someone nigh. That nearness— “proximity” or “propinquity,” if you’re still feeling Latinate—that closeness, can be geographical or genetic or emotional, referring to the lady down the street, or kin near in blood, or a friend near and dear. “Neighborliness,” then, is how you treat all of those people, not as if they’re salad forks or the upper crust, and not just as if they happen to inhabit your town. It’s not for the city and it’s not for the court: it’s for the neighborhood. It makes a virtue of the people and the places it’s for.

In a world that’s increasingly flat and connected, across borders of all kinds, a question asked by a lawyer ages ago seems more relevant than ever: Who is my neighbor?

A reply to that question, in story form, can be found in the Gospel of Luke. It involves a Samaritan.

By replacing “etiquette” with “neighborliness,” we get rid of the arbitrary and undefined in our values—unseating the abstract “they” who would make manners without our say-so. We put Other People back in view, where these Other People can more readily receive our kindness and our concern. Etiquette, after all, really only matters for the sake of someone else. If you’re trying to understand rules—any rules—for their own sake, or for your own self-interest, you’re sadly, sadly missing the point. 

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