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Life as Performance Art

     Five, ten, or more centuries ago, the whole purpose of etiquette was to demonstrate partiality, respect, and submission to one’s “betters.”  That is something of an offensive way of saying being respectful to someone simply because he or she was of higher social status and rank.  For example, when the lord or lady of the manor passed by, men were expected to take off their hat and bow as they passed by, and women to bow or curtsy.  Senior clergy got that treatment, too, from the lay members who were paying their wages, or from a cleric who was of lower status.  Lay people were generally at the bottom of the pile.  Always
    It was all rather complicated, too.  For example, there were twenty-plus orders of ordained clergy, starting from sub-deacon to Cardinals and Popes.  In between were deacons, cathedral deans, rural deans, archdeacons and more.  Everyone was expected to know their place and treat anyway higher up the ranks with the etiquette they deserved. It did not matter if they were a good person or not.  Their social standing demanded respect.
    Nobility started with barons, and moved upward to counts (or in England, earls), marquis, and Duke.  However, in France there were seven different grades of marquis.  In the German states, anyone who owned land had the title of Freiherr or Baron.
    Not too long ago, it was a matter of etiquette to dress for the occasion, and that included shopping.  Mother’s lips tightened whenever she saw some of her friends wearing hair rollers (“lobster cages,” she called them) in the fruit and vegetable department at the grocery store. She saw it as disrespectful to others.  It was always white gloves to go into a store, plus a hat.  Father was the same way with ties and polished shoes, and a fedora.  There was a sense of conformity until the late 1960s.  Once, when I did not see the point of wearing a tie, he tapped me on the cheek and said, “Hey, show some respect when you’re meeting my friends,” as he handed me a tie.  The Olds expected gentlemen of all ages to doff their hat or cap in the presence of ladies or inside a building.
     That same minefield of etiquette incorporated children as well.  At home and in school, we were drilled on how to greet and speak to adults.  Being respectful was the key point, and that extended to school clothes as well.  Skirt and blouse for girls, with a sweater in cooler weather.  Oh, and shoes had to be of the ‘dress’ style, never tennis shoes.  The gym or playground were the exceptions.  Young women were told their shoes could not be too shiny because they might “reflect up” and give a reflection of their ‘unawares’ or ‘smalls’ as Mother delicately called them.  As an aside, that is still a municipal ordinance in some parts of Italy.  We fellows had to wear shirts with the tails tucked in and dress pants.  And then there was Brylcreem; no little dab would ever do a respectable boy, but an ample amount so we didn’t look like some “long haired hippy freak.”  Corduroys were problematic because they were considered too informal; blue jeans or any other color of denim was out of the question.
     Just to make sure children learned proper deportment and respect, there were rule books. My sister and I each got a copy of Emily Post for our tenth birthday.  It was all encompassing.  Add to that the Boy Scout Handbook, and an assortment of etiquette primers from Brooks Brothers, and I was out of excuses for misbehaving.
     The 1960s brought a change that moved us toward far less formality, including a radical break with the old rules of social decorum.  The free speech movement made room for conversations about any subject once considered very private and personal.  Soon, it wasn’t just the hippies and their allies; it went mainstream when Phil, Maury, Sally, and others took over the afternoon television programming with their talk shows.  Every one of them tried to outdo the others by being more shocking.  Eventually it slithered down to the bottom of decency with Jerry Springer.  It was trash from start to finish; not surprisingly, people lapped it up.  Most viewers denied ever watching it, but they worked hard at never missing a segment.
     Some might say that it continues today with the presidential debates.  Debates is an odd word for something that resembles trash talk just before professional wrestling or roller derby. I cannot figure why we led candidates get away with the very sort of behavior we abhor in other people or ourselves.
     I could continue, but you get the idea. All things considered, we have moved from obsessing over etiquette to what we are now calling “boundaries.”  It is far more than a semantic difference. Boundaries are whatever we want them to be.
     Etiquette has always been changing from medieval chivalry to Emily Post.  The biggest change, however, is the shift from the common accepted rules of etiquette to “setting boundaries” and then endlessly debating them.
   Most of us have little desire to return to the hard-core conformity, rigidity, and even fear of what others might say or think of a generation ago.  We do not want to obsessively worry about what the neighbors will say if we mow the lawn wearing tacky shorts, or what they will say about us if we do not go to church on Sunday morning, or go to the ‘wrong’ church. Society seems to be less concerned about obedience than we were in the past.
     Boundaries are a perpetual moving target.  Once, we kept our private life to ourselves, believing that not everyone was entitled to our secrets.  Today, the expectation is that we tell everything.  Boundaries are a personal decree of what I choose to do or not do, and what I choose to accept in others.  That’s fine and dandy, but as far as I am concerned, you can make all the demands you like about my personal life, but I’ll tell you only what I want to tell.  That’s my boundary, so live with it.
     After the election in 2016, someone asked who I voted for.  I said that was my business and private.  My answer was not well received, and the woman demanded a second time.  “I need to know who you voted for.”  This time I was a bit firmer and more told her, “Sorry, but I am not interested in your needs.”
     Over the past few decades there has been a shift in how etiquette is applied and received. In the past, it was from the bottom of the social economic ladder up to the top.  Today, an ever-increasing number of people on or near the top rung realize their responsibility to tangibly show respect to everyone they encounter.  And that, most believe, is the way it should be in our democratized society.

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