The Decline of Strict Etiquette

As social norms relax, new behaviors can pop up to take their place.

A vintage illustration of a man and woman in formal attire, with the caption "I am very bored"
Paul Popper / Popperfoto / Getty

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In a 1929 Atlantic article titled “Tragedies of Etiquette,” an anonymous writer details the many surprises contained in a book on women’s etiquette. One example: “My mother, whom I had always considered wellbred, had never taught me that a young man should be offered a stuffed chair, an elderly one an armchair, while a lady must always be seated on the sofa.”

Norms of polite behavior have come a long way since then. The etiquette books of today are much more relaxed, Michael Waters wrote last year: “One 2014 study found that whereas early-20th-century etiquette books tended to dish out specific rules, today’s etiquette guides are much more general—advocating a set of ‘fluid “rules” that help us interact thoughtfully,’ as an updated version of Emily Post’s Etiquette suggests, rather than a one-size-fits-all directive.”

As behavioral norms loosen and people figure out how to act without relying on once-sacred conventions, areas of society are experiencing growing pains—or at least some growing awkwardness. In his article, Waters offers one fascinating case: Strict social codes used to determine what people could discuss at the dinner table, but now it’s up to us human beings to figure it out for ourselves, which has led to concerns about whether we’re now sharing too much with one another.

Today’s reading list explores how our mores of politeness have evolved—and how they continue to change each day, through our language and how we live our lives.

The Decline of Etiquette and the Rise of “Boundaries”

By Michael Waters

For centuries, strict social norms dictated what people could politely talk about. Now we have to figure it out for ourselves.

How Please Stopped Being Polite

By Walker Mimms

The phrase if it please you has been shortened and shortened over time—until it’s become more brusque than courteous.

Four Words to Seem More Polite

By Olga Khazan

Empathy makes you better at cocktail parties—and at life. (From 2014)

Still Curious?

Other Diversions


When the first postcards went on sale in the U.S. in 1873, many people worried that the more casual format would “encourage thoughtless disclosure,” Waters writes. “In the old days a letter was an important affair, not to be lightly scribbled, and only sent when the writer had something to say,” a Boston-based magazine argued in 1884.

I’m not sure postcards have gone on to inspire “thoughtless disclosure,” but this anecdote does inspire me to go back to the practice of writing them—and to try to put in a little more thought when I do.

— Isabel