I went to a Quaker (or Friends) high school, and despite not being religious in the slightest, there were a lot of things I liked about it. I enjoyed the mandatory silent meeting, and learning to be quiet with myself as a teenager. I enjoyed how they taught us about conscientious objecting at the beginning of the 2004 war with Iraq. I enjoyed their simple architecture. And though it was never directly employed to the students, I love the concept of Quaker “plain speech.”
The Quaker movement grew out of a break from the Church of England, which many believed was too ostentatious. They believed in a direct relationship with god, and universal priesthood, and they valued living a simple, non-materialistic life so that that relationship could be focused on. This was called the Testimony of Simplicity, and manifested itself in a lot of ways. Quakers in early American settlements were known for making things like apple butter and scrapple, foods that utilized leftovers, and that tasted good but were not particularly indulgent (Quakers disliked gluttony). Their dress was plain, and their meeting houses often featured white walls with no stained glass or other decoration.
What was also plain was their speech. Plain speech is used to “refuse to give into the vanity of the world and the unspiritual, conventional order. It naturally involved strict honesty, a lack of artificial elaborations, and directness.” Many Quakers rejected honorific titles, and the common English names for days and months that referenced paganism. They also didn’t refer to any single with plural pronouns like “ye,” which was customary in 17th century England when addressing the rich or noble.
As we’ve said before, at its best, etiquette is the language of good behavior. It doesn’t matter who you come from or where you are–treating people well is what matters above all else. However, at its worst it’s a tool used to make class distinctions and judgments, arbitrary rules that separate those who know them from those who don’t. Plain speech does away with that. There’s no worry about making sure you have the right title if everyone is known by their first and last name. There is no class distinction between style of dress or language used. Plain speech puts everyone on an equal playing field.
What’s also valued in plain speech is truth and directness, which can rub some people the wrong way. A negative truth can be hard to hear, and really, about 75% of etiquette is about how to say something negative in the smoothest way possible. I’m sure there have been many Quakers who never learned or cared how to say things directly but tactfully, but we can certainly learn from the best case scenario of plain speech. Remember that directness does not equal rudeness (in most western cultures, anyway). You can be direct while still having care for people’s feelings. And it would probably behoove us all to learn that no, most people aren’t motivated by an evil desire to hurt our feelings with everything they say. Sometimes it can just be what you say, and not how you say it.
Do any of you remember this lady from What Not To Wear (aka my favorite show when I was in college)?
She showed up with these “hostess pajamas” that her mother-in-law had given her because every Southern woman needed a pair. Stacey and Clinton trashed those gold leggings and matching top in a hurry.
It turns out that hostess pajamas are a real thing! As the name states, they are pajamas you would wear when you were hosting. Of course these aren’t a ratty flannel pants matching with a holey tee-shirt sort of affair, but rather wide comfortable pants and a loose blouse. And you would wear them for more casual types of hosting, in your home. The reason you could wear these “pajamas” in your home was that the hostess was almost always more casual that her guests. For example, in the hat wearing days, women would always keep their hat on when visiting, but the hostess would never wear a hat in her own home.
An alternative thought about hosting pajamas is that they would be what you would wear around the house in the daytime so you could be comfortable but still presentable to any guests that happened to drop by. We should really bring this back- I don’t know about you, but I hate running to the door to accept a package from UPS when I am in something old, with no bra, and ratty hair.
If you read a lot of etiquette columns and websites like I do, you probably enjoy seeing all the terrible etiquette faux pas people commit and cringing.
However, you might start to notice a creep of people automatically jumping to the worst conclusion- that the people committing the faux pas are boors who are acting incorrectly out of spite to purposefully hurt or offend the innocent person who is writing into the advice column.
I think that it is important to remember that a lot of etiquette blunders are committed out of ignorance rather than purposeful spite and that since a part of etiquette means not countering rudeness with more rudeness, we need to give the benefit of the doubt and just roll with things more. Unless someone repeatedly does that same thing after being told that their actions are hurtful.
I love learning about bits of etiquette from other countries, like how in India you’re supposed to eat food with your right hand (since you do your business with your left), or how in Italy chrysanthemums are only given at funerals. But there’s one tidbit I learned recently while researching the hidden people (elves) of Iceland: don’t throw rocks in Iceland!
The numbers vary, but according to many surveys, a great number of Icelanders believe in the existence of hidden people, essentially a race of elves or other human-like creature that lives in a dimension just beyond ours, and who sometimes are visible to us. Much has been made of how construction has been halted due to the belief that hidden folk live where a road was supposed to go. But other etiquette rules exist, such as never throwing stones, for you may accidentally hit one.
This is good advice in general! When you throw rocks you could hit literally anything–a person, a car, a cat. Throwing rocks is a dangerous hobby, doubly so when there are potential victims that you can’t even see. So err on the side of caution and don’t throw rocks, for the good of all beings around you.
But also because they may start throwing rocks back.