I was homeschooled for most of my pre-college years. I’m guessing at this moment many of you are having epiphanies that goes something like this: “Ah, that’s why he’s so weird and socially inept!” Yes, and I’m trying to rectify that, but I need your help. I’ve been mulling over two separate situations of social etiquette for quite some time now. I know this post is stupidly long, but this is serious stuff, people. If you have to, print it out and read it on the bus or something. It also would make great dinner conversation.
Let me set up the first situation. Person A is exiting a building. Person B is entering the building at roughly the same time through the same door as Person A. The door cannot be seen through. Person A gets to the door first, opens the door, and begins walking out just as Person B arrives at the door. This requires Person B to pause a moment before he can enter the building. At this moment in time, does Person A owe Person B a duty prescribed by etiquette? Namely, is Person A bound by etiquette to say “excuse me” to Person B? I would argue he does not. First, he only put the slightest of inconveniences on Person B. A very slight inconvenience does not impose any requirements of etiquette. Second, Person A was not aware of Person B before he opened the door, so any inconvenience caused is purely accidental and not malicious. Third, in general there is a first-come-first-served social norm that is to be followed in situations where only one person at a time can take advantage of the opportunity. For example, if there is only one bank teller available and he can only service one customer at a time, then customers who come later form a queue and wait his or her turn for the opportunity to take advantage of the bank teller. Obviously, rules outside of social norms can be used to override the first-come-first-served social norm. A good example of this is at a hospital. A person with a serious gunshot wound to the chest will take precedence over the hypochondriac who comes in with an achy tummy regardless of when he enters the hospital.
Another ambiguous situation where “excuse me” might be required is the all too common situation of two people walking down aisles or hallways and approach a corner, oblivious of each other, and upon turning the corner come perilously close to colliding. Clearly, if a collision does take place “excuse me”‘s are required by both parties. But what if both turn a corner with ample room and time to change courses, comfortably avoiding each other, but close enough that the “personal space” of the other person is slightly invaded? Of course, this distance is subjective and fuzzy at best, but most attentive members of society have developed an intuitive grasp of how big this space is. In this situation both parties physically avoid each other but invade the other’s personal space. Is an “excuse me” required? Again, I would argue there is no requirement. First, no physical contact has been made. Second, only the slightest of inconveniences has been thrust on the other party. Third, the invasion of personal space is accidental and not malicious. This situation can be finessed to make the requirements of etiquette more difficult to determine. For example, what if physical contact is avoided but at least one party is forced to take drastic measures to avoid the collision, say take a large, quick side step. I would argue in these moments the requirements of etiquette can only be determined by those in the situation. They would need to take into consideration the amount of inconvenience that has occurred, who has the greater responsibility in the situation, how close did the two people come to contact, how beneficial is it to make a positive impression (e.g. a hot girl/guy is involved) and possibly whether one of the parties was handicapped by external forces (e.g. a large shopping cart, a screaming child, or an armful of ferrets).
The reason I bring this up is because I come across many people who say “excuse me” at the slightest provocation. It seems ridiculous to me. If somebody is occupying space I would like to occupy roughly 3 seconds after they exit the space, I do not believe an “excuse me” is required. If somebody is going about his or her normal business, remaining socially attentive, but still manage to put a slight inconvenience on me, say waiting 1 second for the doorway to become unoccupied, I do not think an “excuse me” needs to be offered. Indeed, an excessive usage of “excuse me” only dilutes its value when it is really required. Much like everything else in life with dearth comes worth.
Compliments in return
Compliments are very powerful social tools. Any man who has not learned this by the time he is in his mid-teens will have painful lessons of its value inflicted upon him by the women in his life. Women who are not aware of this will probably be deemed to have all sorts of unmentionable qualities. I probably do not give compliments as often as I should. Though I would like to hope that when I do give compliments they have great value due to their rareness and sincerity.
There is one situation when it comes to compliments where I am confused as to the requirements of etiquette. The situation occurs after somebody gives me a compliment, usually highly flattering — and dare I say true! Clearly, a “thank you” is required at the very least. To paid a compliment, and not even give thanks for it is a definite breech of etitiquette protocol. However, is anything else required? For example, should a compliment be repaid with a compliment in turn? The reason I ask is because of a recent interaction I had with a sales clerk at a department store who grumbled under her breath to me after giving a very nice compliment to a former co-worker, “She will never say anything nice back after you give her a compliment.” I believe she was implying that the former co-worker had certain negative qualities because she did not pay back a compliment with a compliment. A light clicked on in my brain that I might have made all sorts of social faux pas because I often make a point not to repay a compliment with a compliment.
I have several reasons why I do this. First and foremost, a compliment given in return for a compliment received is almost entirely gutted of unquestionable sincerity. Obviously, a very sincere compliment can be given after a compliment has been received, but it is not unquestionable sincerity. One can easily think that the compliment was given only because the first person paid the first compliment; therefore, the second compliment was only given to immediately repay the debt incurred by the first compliment. Or the second compliment was only given so as to avoid being seen as self-centered, unthankful, or arrogant. In my mind, it is all too easy to second guess the sincerity of a compliment if it given immediately after a compliment. Second, I do my best not be hooked by those fishing for compliments. Somebody who is clearly angling for return compliments by casting out dozens of compliments speared on hooks is exploiting social norms and etiquette to feed his or her starving ego. I do my best to avoid being the food of starving egos. Third, though Mutual Admiration Societies are a great thing to be a part of, it seems best to me to keep that mutual admiration as a simple unspoken assumption of the society. If you’re part of the society you know everybody in the society is cool. There’s no reason to waste breath and time extolling each other. It is better spent discussing other things, like, say that hot babe in the corner booth. Fourth and finally, I treat others how I want to be treated. Frankly, I feel a little uncomfortable when somebody immediately repays a compliment of mine because I get afraid I might be construed as fishing for compliments myself. In my view, my compliments are inspired by true virtues and qualities in a person, and they do not require anything but a simple thanks. Of course, one notable exception to this is when I am with that special someone. Compliments should be flowing freely, hot and heavy, regardless of who started it.
In summation, I hold etiquette does not demand a compliment has to be repaid with another compliment. So, if anybody has ever been offended by me not doing this, please accept my apologies and understand I have my reasons. Oh, and by the way, you’re a really really cool person if you’ve read this far.