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Etiquette is the code that governs the expectations of social behavior, the conventional norm. It is an unwritten code, which evolves from written rules, for the Greek equivalent of "etiquette" is protocol, the written formula for ceremonial. It usually reflects a theory of conduct that society or tradition has invested heavily in. Like "culture", it is a word that has gradually grown plural, especially in a multi-ethnic society with many clashing expectations. Thus, it is now possible to refer to "an etiquette" or "a culture", realizing that these may not be universal.

Etiquette fundamentally prescribes and restricts the ways in which people interact with each other, and show their respect for other people by conforming to the norms of society. Etiquette instructs us to: greet friends and acquaintances with warmth and respect, refrain from insults and prying, offer hospitality equally and generously to our guests, wear clothing suited to the occasion, contribute to conversations without dominating them, offer a chair or a helping arm to those who need assistance, eat neatly and quietly, avoid disturbing others with loud music or unnecessary noise, follow the established rules of a club or legislature upon becoming a member, arrive promptly when expected, comfort the bereaved, and respond to invitations promptly.

Violations of etiquette, if severe, can cause hurt feelings, misunderstandings, or real grief and pain, and can even escalate into murderous rage. One can reasonably view etiquette as the minimal politics required to avoid major conflict in polite society, and as such, an important aspect of applied ethics. An etiquette is sometimes considered to be an ethical code in itself.

The notion of etiquette, being of French origin and arising from practices at the court of Louis XIV, is occasionally disparaged as old-fashioned or elite, a code concerned only with "which fork to use". Because violations of rules of etiquette generally do not harm anybody, they are considered by some to be unnecessary restrictions of freedom. For instance, wearing pajamas to a wedding in a cathedral may be an expression of the guest's freedom, which may cause the bride and groom to wonder how the guest in pajamas feels about them and their wedding. Etiquette may be enforced in pragmatic ways: "No shoes, no shirt, no service." Others feel that a single, basic code shared by all makes life simpler and more pleasant by removing many chances for misunderstandings.

People who leave all etiquette behind when they don't see a tablecloth, confuse it with manners and restrict manners to "table manners." Manners involve a wide range of social interactions within cultural norms as in Comedy of manners, or a painter's characteristic "manner. Etiquette and manners, like mythology have buried histories espedcially when they seem to have little obvious purpose, and their justifications as logical ("respect shown to others" etc.) may be equally revealing to the social historian.

Etiquette is dependent on culture; what is excellent etiquette in one society may shock in another. It is a topic that has occupied writers and thinkers in all sophisticated societies for millennia, beginning with a behavior code by Ptahhotep, a vizier in ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom during the reign of the Fifth Dynasty king Djedkare Isesi (ca 2414-2375 B.C.). All known literate civilizations, including ancient Greece and Rome, developed rules for proper social conduct. Confucius included rules for eating and speaking along with his more philosophical sayings. Early modern conceptions of what behavior identifies a "gentleman" were codified in the 16th century in a book by Baldassare Castiglione, Il Cortegiano ("The Courtier"), which remained in force in its essentials until World War I. Louis XIV established an elaborate and rigid court ceremony, but distinguished himself from the high bourgeoisie by continuing to eat, stylishly and fastidiously, with his fingers.

Baldassare Castiglione, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington wrote codes of conduct for young gentlemen. The immense popularity of advice columns and books by Miss Manners shows the currency of this topic.

The outward adoption of the superficial mannerisms of an in-group, in the interests of social advancement rather than a concern for others, is a form of snobbism.

The rise of the Internet has necessitated the adaptation of existing rules of conduct to create Netiquette, which governs the drafting of email, rules for participating in online forums, and so on.

A related term is kindness.

The books of Norbert Elias shed useful light on the development of etiquette in early modern Europe.