Quaker Plain Speech: The Anti-Etiquette

My high school

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.

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