I’ve been noodling around with this idea for a while, and since we’re off to Immortal Confusion later this week, it’s popped up again. Here’s what I’ve been thinking: a lot of the problems people have been complaining about in the last year or so with respect to public behaviours might be solved if we went back to observing some of the old rules of etiquette.

Any group I’m in, I’m usually the one who gets asked things like “Is this my napkin?” or, “What do I do with this fork?” This happens because most of my friends know that I’ve made a study of etiquette – though I admit that it’s always been for the entertainment value. Lately, however, I’m finding it’s a subject I’m taking more and more seriously.

We all have a tendency to dismiss the idea of etiquette as something outmoded that only deals with silly things like forks. We forget that it began by making clear that you don’t use my knife, and I don’t use yours. Not because I don’t want your germs, but because you shouldn’t touch another person’s weapons, even if she’s only using them to eat with just now.

In other words, it’s all about behaviours, not utensils.

Let’s take something that’s worrying a lot of people just now. When is it all right to touch another person? And no, I’m not talking about family members, medical situations, emergencies, etc. I’m talking about the category generally known as “acquaintance” (for what constitutes an acquaintance, precisely, look to a future blog). I don’t think there’s anyone out there who hasn’t been touched by someone when they didn’t want to be. So the first question is, how do we know someone wants or doesn’t want to be touched? And the second is, what do we do about it?

Someone once asked my favourite etiquette guru, Miss Manners, “When do I shake a woman’s hand?” Her answer: “When she puts out her hand to be shaken.”

Do you follow? Essentially there’s two clear messages here. The first is that what the toucher wants, or what he/she thinks should happen, doesn’t control what happens. It’s all the touchee’s decision. Your need/right to hug someone stops at their desire not to be hugged. Same as my right to punch you stops a centimetre from your nose. The second message? Watch for your signals.

Okay, I hear you asking me, but how do we know which is the toucher, and which the touchee? Here’s how it breaks down: between a man and a woman, the woman; between an adult/older person and a child/younger person, the child; between a teacher and a student, the student (okay, not in martial arts, but those disciplines have their own etiquette); between a host and a guest, the guest. In any situation where there is an imbalance, the person who because of size, strength, age, experience, or degree of comfort in this location is the more vulnerable – that one is the touchee.

If you’re the toucher, and you’d like to touch someone, wait for your signal. If the touchee puts out his hand, or lifts his arms slightly for a hug, or touches you first, then go ahead. If they don’t, then you don’t. It’s that simple. The touchee calls the shots. What if you’d both like to touch, there’s no apparent imbalance, and you’re each waiting for the other one to go first, and no one does? Well, gee, is that such a tragedy? It’ll kill you to keep your hands to yourself?

But what if one of you decides to test the water? What does the other one do? Well, if you really don’t mind, you can touch back. But say you do mind. Say that, like me, you just don’t like to be touched by someone you don’t know well, regardless of how famously you’re getting along? Well, etiquette states that it’s impolite to correct people, and that does seem to imply that you have to suffer in silence. But it aint necessarily so.

The whole point of etiquette is to minimize discomfort. So in this situation you can and should speak up. What you don’t say is “you shouldn’t touch people you don’t know well.” What you do say is some variation on, “I don’t like to be touched by people I don’t know well, thanks for respecting that.” Their momentary discomfort is more than outweighed by their knowledge that they’re not causing you any further discomfort. And if there’s the added benefit that this person may be more careful with others? Bonus!

Closing thought. What about the people who say, “But I don’t feel like doing this, people shouldn’t be so stuffy and I should be able to do what I want.” Well my dear, here’s the first rule of etiquette club: It’s not about you.