Now, these are just my personal definitions, mind you. You may or may not find them listed in this manner in a dictionary. But to me, courtesy simply means to treat other people in a way that shows kindness and consideration toward them. Etiquette, on the other hand, involves a formal system of manners that are generally accepted within a certain segment of society.
I suppose that we have all encountered people whose etiquette is sorely lacking, but who are exemplary in their courteousness toward others. They do not follow or perhaps even know all the details of Emily Post’s famous treatise on proper behavior, but they always have an attitude of watching after the comforts and needs of others. If I understand the term, that is essentially what is involved in Southern hospitality. “Make yourself at home” means that a visitor does not need to worry about all the details of etiquette, but can relax, to some extent at least.
Probably most of our rules of etiquette are founded in courtesy. For example, we hold our eating utensils in the prescribed manner so that our elbows are not sticking in the side of the person sitting next to us. I have read that in some societies, belching is considered a compliment to the cook. Perhaps so, but it certainly is not considerate of our neighbors. In that case, that which is good etiquette would not be courteous.
I forget now what brought the contrast to my mind, but years ago I started thinking about the differences between American and Japanese behavior. Japan has a very strict code of etiquette, and everything is very formal. But they have millions of people jammed together on a tiny group of islands. If there were no etiquette, society would dissolve into chaos.
By contrast, we Americans sometimes are quite rude. And while there is never any excuse for discourtesy, it is a fact that this country grew up with miles and miles of unsettled lands. Pioneers and mountain men did not have much need for etiquette, because they seldom were around anyone toward which they could use it.
Etiquette is fashion; courtesy is an attitude. Emily Post was replaced by Amy Vanderbilt as the arbiter of formal behavior in this country, and someone else probably fills that role today. What is considered proper formal behavior in one generation may change to some degree in the next.
Courtesy, however, ought to be a constant. If my wife goes to the trouble to cook our meal, then I ought to be considerate enough of her to try to come to the table as promptly as I can when dinner is called. And I ought to thank her for the meal.
Pam and I have been in the “empty nest” phase of life for several years. However, at the moment, my daughter and her husband and four daughters are living with us while their house is being constructed. Abruptly I had to start thinking about some details of etiquette which had not been necessary for a while, such as being careful not to walk around the house in a half-clad state.
Etiquette is a generally accepted code of conduct for formal situations. Sometimes it is necessary and sometimes it is not. However, courtesy ought to be a constant part of our lives. Sadly, it is becoming less and less common.