Etiquette and Protocol
When I was a child, my favorite movies were the Star Wars movies. My dad taped Episode 4, 5, and 6 during a TV marathon and I watched those VHS tapes dozens of times. Every time I was home sick from school I would drag my sleeping bag into the living room and watch the entire trilogy back to back to back. I knew our copies so well, I had even memorized when the partial commercial snippets would interrupt the action.
Those three movies shaped my growing up worldview immensely, from the strong female character and mostly white cast to the rebels' enduring fight against an oppressive system. One small thing that made a distinct impression on me was when I first heard the concept of etiquette and protocol.
In A New Hope, Luke's uncle initially declines to buy C3PO from the Jawas because the droid is "programmed for etiquette and protocol." So I asked my dad what that was and he explained. That scene suddenly made much more sense to my 8 year old self: there is clearly not much use for a walking talking encyclopedia of appropriate diplomatic behavior on a remote planet so far from politically important happenings.
Protocol seems very useful in diplomacy, which is all about managing political relations across language and culture. At an intersection of different customs and values, an established protocol can help bring people together by manufacturing a common ground where one may not otherwise be easily identifiable.
Unfortunately, it is also inherently exclusionary, as having an established behavior protocol for a certain space makes it quite clear who does not belong in that space. It is one of the many ways that superiority is perpetuated even beyond the diplomatic relations of nation-states. If the protocols in any space are unwritten or otherwise non-public (as they often are), then anyone who knows the rules has an advantage over anyone who doesn’t.
Etiquette is just the same. It is useful as a tool to demonstrate respect for another person by behaving toward them in a polite manner. And it is just as difficult to get right when the rules are unwritten, nebulous, or ever-changing as is the case with most social spaces. What is proper and polite today is not the same as it was 100 years ago, 10 years ago, or sometimes even last week.
And it is just as useful as a tool of oppression. The people who hold the social power in any space have the privilege of deciding what is polite, proper, and customary. Through a lens of superiority, anyone who fails to achieve proper etiquette is deficient. Anyone whose character needs improvement is therefore unworthy of full consideration.
The more rules and nuance included, the greater the challenge to maintain it, and the greater the degree of control power-holding people have over the behavior of other people. A great deal of time, effort, and money has been invested in learning correct behavior over much of history, especially by women and girls. Even today, classes are available in deportment, manners, etiquette, and social protocol.
As a child, I was highly observant of how adults behaved and of social niceties generally. I wanted everyone around me to feel comfortable all the time, so I put together a mental scrapbook of etiquette and protocol to inform my personal behavior. I was known as the Family Diplomat and I took pride at how well I could navigate social situations without upsetting anyone. It was only in recent years that I finally understood my refusal to ruffle any feathers has allowed unacceptable and unjust behavior to go un-checked and flourish.
I can understand that it seems quite handy to have a prescribed way to interact with people in social and business situations. But it also allows for people to think about other people as objects instead of fellow human beings. If there is a formula for our interaction, then I don't have to get to know you as a person. I can begin our interaction or relationship with certain assumptions and act on those assumptions.
I see this play out constantly with gender identity. Mainstream society has for a very long time assigned certain clothing, hairstyles, jobs, mannerisms (and much more) to either a male or female gender binary designation. The establishment of this protocol allows two people to automatically know which gender category the person across from them falls into, and then also to extrapolate several other things about them without ever having to ask.
On its face, this may seem like a harmless convenience. But what happens when someone doesn't fit the formula? If we hold etiquette and protocol as the highest authority, then that non-conforming person is a problem to be fixed. But authentic human expression is not a problem. In fact it’s what makes us interesting, and sharing our individuality allows us to have deep and genuine connections with each other.
Humans are fascinating and complex. My personal diplomacy kept me safe through challenging and toxic relationships, but it didn’t get me any closer to understanding the fullness of what it means to be human. When I left those relationships and began to explore myself more completely and express myself more fully, it became far more interesting to discover what an individual person really thinks and feels rather than to divine it using a rubric I crafted out of un-checked assumptions.
As it turns out, almost no one fits the formula (no matter the formula). People are individuals with their own interests, preferences, and quirks. And all the rules of social engagement are imaginary. We created them. Just like all the rules and systems in our society: we can make up new customs of engaging each other at any time and the only limit is our imagination.
Information and Inspiration
10/7/2020 04:47:41 pm
Etiquette and protocol were certainly used when my parents were growing up to "other" them as Immigrant's kids. Even when I was an adult my mom still kept her "place" by never seeking what she saw as unavailable for "someone like her." I realize I unconsciously adopted those ideas of self worth--or lack of self worth--from her, and now have to be really conscious of believing in myself. This was a great article. Definitely important to think about.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.