National Etiquette Week – May 11 – 17, 2014

A degree will get your foot in the door; your soft skills will open it.
~ Jeanne Nelson

You might recognize the above quote as the motto of my etiquette consultancy and training brand, PROWESS Workshops (Protocol for the Workplace and Etiquette for Social Situations). As we observe National Etiquette Week 2014, it’s important to remember that the underpinnings of etiquette – respect, kindness and consideration for others – are also the most prized qualities sought by employers of job candidates and employees. Today, employers are looking for attitude over aptitude, and that says a lot about the importance of good manners and the practice of proper etiquette.

Too often, however, when people hear the word, “etiquette” they think of a stuffy set of rules that belong to a bygone age that don’t apply to modern times. But as those of you who have been following my blog know, that’s a mighty false assumption.

In honor of National Etiquette Week, now is a good time to revisit those bygone times when some of the etiquette rules we follow today came into being.

The Beginning…

Rules of conduct were documented as early as 2400 B.C. in what is considered to be the world’s oldest book, the Prisse Papyrus, named for French Egyptologist Prisse d’Avennes. Written by Ptah-hotep, an Egyptian sage who served as Grand Vizier under the Pharaoh Isesi in the 5th Dynasty, the Prisse Papyrus contains parts of two older works, one that has been traced to the 3rd Dynasty (3800 B.C.).

This collection of behavioral guidelines, Instructions of Ptah-hotep, encouraged honesty, kindness and tolerance in young Egyptian men. They included such advice as, “Let thy mind be deep and thy speech scanty” and “Be silent, for it is a better gift than flowers.” These wise observations are precursors of the modern advice to use tact and diplomacy and to think before speaking.

Centuries later the term “etiquette” originated in France; translated to English this means “label” or “ticket.” In the early part of the 18th Century, Louis XIV, also known as The Sun King, published for guests of court functions a ticket called an etiquette that listed guidelines for proper behavior and protocol.

But many modern behavioral customs and rules in the Western world are believed to have their roots in the Age of Chivalry during the European Middle Ages (circa 1100 -1500 A.D.), and originated as a remedy for objectionable behavior, from the offensive to the extremely violent. During this era, kings and queens and their knights in shining armor established a code of behavior and ethics that has lasted in some form to our modern times. Here’s a look back at some of the situations that prompted the etiquette rules that we observe today:


A man extended his hand in greeting to another man to demonstrate that he was not concealing a weapon, such as a dagger hidden up his sleeve; the other man did likewise. Therefore, a handshake signified talk instead of fight. This is also likely how the saying, “he’s got something up his sleeve,” originated.

Today, shaking hands in professional and social situations is a gesture of courtesy, leadership and professionalism.

Elbows Off The Table

The common folk often dined at long crowded tables where there was little room to maneuver or place plates, utensils and platters of food. Elbows, therefore, weren’t allowed on the table, as one might wind up in the middle of someone else’s plate. That type of occurrence was believed to prompt many fights that turned into brawls.

Today, keeping elbows off the table while dining is a sign of respect for the hostess and fellow diners and an awareness of the courtesies involved in dining with others. It is acceptable, however, to place your elbows on the table when discussing business, but only after dishes have been removed following lunch or dinner and while waiting for coffee to be served.

Hands In Plain Sight

It was expected in many cultures and certain levels of society that hands would be in sight while dining. This was to ensure that a weapon was not concealed in the hand or that one’s hands were not engaged in inappropriate behavior under the table!

Today this rule has been relaxed in many countries except France. It’s acceptable to rest one hand in your lap, especially when eating in the American style.


A fully suited knight who wished to talk rather than fight was expected to lift the visor on his helmet.  As he did so, his hand ended up at his forehead, parallel to the ground, in a gesture that became known as a “salute.”

Today, salutes in the military constitute protocol; in civilian life they are friendly gestures of agreement or camaraderie.

Covering One’s Mouth When Yawning

This courtesy involved one’s hand shielding offensive breath, as cleaning one’s teeth and mouth was either not performed effectively or at all. It also reduced the chance of swallowing flies.

Today covering one’s mouth prevents others from seeing the more unattractive parts of the inside of the mouth (complete with dental fillings) and to prevent the spread of germs or unpleasant breath.

Opening Doors

The custom of men opening doors for women is believed to have originated in the times when women were constricted by tight corsets and wide and cumbersome dresses and coats while carrying purses and parasols and teetering on impossibly high heels – some as high as six inches. These fashions made it difficult if not impossible for women to move let alone open doors to houses, shops and carriages!

Today this custom continues in formal social situations – as do pulling out chairs and other niceties (when women tend to dress up in delicate and sometimes complicated gowns and challenging shoes!). But in business situations both women and men open doors, pull out chairs, pick up dropped items, carry items and perform various courtesies for each other.


Some historians believe this tradition may have begun as early as 5000 B.C., and observed by both Greeks and Romans who feared being poisoned or drugged by enemies through one’s drink, and to assure guests that their drinks were not poisoned. A delightful custom! Thus, when making a toast, glasses were clinked together firmly to cause the contents to slosh into each other’s glasses upon impact, thereby demonstrating that there was no poison in either drink — because if one drink had been poisoned or drugged, now the other drink would be as well! To prevent those who were dining or drinking together from poisoning or drugging each other’s drinks, the host would pour wine or other spirits from a common vessel, toast his guests, then drink himself to prove that the spirits were safe.

But beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing to modern times, from the simple to the elaborate, toasting has evolved into a custom at both informal and formal social and business occasions, including dinners, dances and balls, engagement parties, weddings, birthdays, professional and official events. Some common toasts include: Cheers (English), L’Chayim (Hebrew/Yiddish),  Salud! (Spanish), Saluté (Italian), Á Votre Sante (French), Skol (Swedish) and Kanpai (Japanese).

This week let’s toast to the concept of proper etiquette and commit to practicing it at all times and in all places with all people. Showing kindness and performing simple courtesies are acts that everyone can do to make the world a more pleasant, productive, prosperous, healthier and safer place to live.

Please look in next week for more about the attitude-over-aptitude hiring phenomenon. Meanwhile, remember that observing the rules of etiquette can open doors of opportunity!

Until next time,



This post was updated on February 24, 2018

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