Does the Golden Rule Need an Update?

Most of us were raised knowing The Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you loathe it when the person next to you scrolls through their phone while in the movies, then make sure you don’t do the same. If it annoys you when a kid kicks your airplane seatback, then ensure your own kids don’t kick the seat in front of them. Sounds straight forward, but could a rule from the 17th century still ring true today?

In a previous life, I was an etiquette coach teaching modern manners for the 21st century. No one needs to know how to enter a horse-drawn carriage or when it is appropriate to remove opera gloves (at least no one I taught!) but the everyday manners that oil the wheels of society never go out of fashion. 

Girl Scout and Boy Scout groups regularly requested my services, and it was fun teaching these young people the tips and tricks to social success. But, without fail, someone would raise their hand and ask if there was a cheat-sheet, a handbook, a Top 5 list of rules, thereby saving them from remembering a “bunch of stuff,” as one boy so graciously put it.

That was when I had to disabuse them of the idea. There are no “rules” in manners; there are only guidelines, fluid and changing depending on the times and the culture. I’d give an example of how decades ago, a man would be regarded as a boor if he didn’t rush ahead and whip open a door for a lady. Nowadays, modern manners say that whoever gets to the door first holds it for the next person. I’d explain how in some cultures, it isn’t polite to eat with your hands, whereas in others, it is the accepted way.

But still, the students—usually the younger set—would ask for one main rule, the most important of all. This is when I would quote the Golden Rule: treat other people as you’d want to be treated. I’d explain that the moment you think about how your behavior is affecting those around you, that’s when you are acting with good manners. 

As much as I have always hewed to this notion, recently, I started to think about it more deeply. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is all well and good, but what if what you would like to have done to you is different from what they want done to them? 

My own words came back to me: “fluid and changing,” could this mean even the Golden Rule could evolve? Every single person on this earth is unique, therefore it follows that how you’d like to be treated could vastly differ from how they’d like to be treated. 

Two simple examples: when you have a party at your house, it is all smooth jazz and soft candle-light. Your neighbor’s ideal party features energetic dance music and bright strobe lights. Is she rude for not turning down his music because she knows this is what you would want? What about the devoted husband who arranges a huge surprise party for his wife because that is how he’d like to be treated on his birthday?

I did some research to see how this ancient Rule had stood the test of time and stumbled across an idea that was new to me: The Platinum Rule. To paraphrase this concept (outlined and named by the writer, Dave Kerpen) we should do unto others as they would want done unto them. It is not how we think they want to be treated, but rather how they actually want to be treated. It made sense especially when he explained that this approach usually results in a better outcome. 

The guy playing the loud music. He would like you to cut him some slack so he can enjoy his party as he wishes. Then, next time your kids are in the pool screaming and splashing a 6am, he will do the same for you. Each of these neighbors is not wishing the neighbor could be more like them, they are respecting their differences, and they would like that respect in return. 

The Golden Rule still stands in many situations. Try to find me someone who enjoys having their seatback kicked for six straight hours. However, in some ways, it has started to feel a bit dated, a bit dad-knows-best. Yet, in our wonderfully diverse world, how can any of us know how someone else wants to be treated? None of us can read minds, so I suspect that when we don’t know how someone wants to be treated, we circle back to the Golden Rule as the yardstick.

Somewhere between gold and platinum, there is a balance. If I taught etiquette now, I believe I’d still stress the golden rule, but I would add a caveat; sometimes, you need to treat others in accordance with their own wishes.

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4 comments on “Does the Golden Rule Need an Update?
  1. Linda warren says:

    Love it I wish more people would behave this way. We all need to be kind and respect each other.

    • Jane Paterson says:

      Thanks, Linda. Yes, if we worked toward respecting other people (their time, property, talents, choices etc) it would go a long way. And we can never have too much kindness in the world.

  2. Jen Pinney says:

    Excellent food for thought, as always Jane!

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