Before entering a room or a hall, it’s common courtesy to ask: “Is anyone there?” or to knock on the door. However, we usually forget to do this at home. In fact, wherever we feel most comfortable is where we’re most liable to get in trouble. Even if it’s our own living room or bedroom, as long as there are other people in the house, it’s better to ask or make a warning sound—with heavy footsteps or light coughing—before entering. This is especially important when entering or passing others’ offices at work, to avoid scaring anyone who happens to be inside. It’s a basic courtesy. It’s also a way to protect others’ privacy and our own minds and lives. There’s a saying: “Those who know others’ secrets are sure to get into trouble.” If you carelessly rush in and discover people saying or doing things they don’t want others to know about, you’ll both be embarrassed and your life might even be in danger. People who accidentally intrude on others’ privacy or overhear secrets often get framed or slandered. In minor cases, they may lose their jobs and fortune; in major cases, they may get killed and bring ruin and misfortune upon their whole family. This happens all the time, so we’d better be careful.
Mencius, a philosopher who propagated the teachings of Confucius during the Warring States Period, is honored as the Lesser Sage, for he was second to the Greatest Sage and Teacher, Confucius. After getting married, Mencius returned home one day and walked into the bedroom without knocking. His wife happened to be changing clothes and had no time to get dressed properly. Mencius was furious and walked out right away. He complained to his mother that her daughter-in-law had no propriety and said he wanted to divorce her. Divorce was an extremely unfair custom in the patriarchal society of ancient China. Only the husband could initiate divorce proceedings, and his signature was enough to make the divorce official. The wife had no right to protest; all she could do was pack up her personal belongings and return to her parents’ home. What was worse, her relatives were usually ashamed of her. Most divorced women bore deep grudges for the rest of their lives and some even committed suicide. Of course, a man could not casually divorce his wife, but only when she had committed serious licentious acts known as the Seven Divorce Offenses. Unfortunately, these were often misused by a picky mother-in-law or when the husband loved another woman. By charging the wife with these offenses, they caused numerous tragedies.
Of course, Mencius was not such a bad man. He simply thought that according to the standards of women’s virtue of the time, his wife had been ill-mannered. Fortunately he had a wise mother who questioned him in detail: “Did you ask before you went into the bedroom?” Mencius said he hadn’t. She then admonished him, “The Book of History teaches us that we should ask, ’Who’s there?’ before going into a room. We should also speak in a loud voice before entering a hall. When we step into a room, we should keep our gaze downcast to avoid finding others’ faults when they aren’t prepared. Since you didn’t knock, of course she didn’t know you were entering. You were the one who was impolite!’ Hearing this, Mencius felt very ashamed and immediately went to apologize to his wife. For now we won’t discuss the background of this story or the ancient standards for women’s virtue. This story was told to illustrate that even a man as worthy as Mencius nearly caused a family tragedy due to his carelessness; how much more liable are we ordinary people to make such mistakes?
In addition, when we knock at a door, ring the doorbell, or make a phone call, we should give our own name. If the other party asks first, we should also clearly tell that person our name. Quite often, people reply in a very familiar manner: “It’s me! Remember me?” Or they respond with a wisecrack: “Guess who?” This is really “forgetting who one is”! So you think you’re someone special? If that person can’t figure out who are you, aren’t you just asking for trouble?
When you introduce yourself and give your name, there are certain rules to follow. Here are a few examples. When you call or write to your teacher, you should give both your first and last names unless you are a student on very familiar terms with him/her. If you are not a graduating student, you should give your grade and class. Otherwise, how can a teacher who has so many students possibly know who you are? When addressing friends, colleagues, or your boss, you should also give your full name and even your department, unless you are a very close friend. When you meet parents and elder relatives with the same surname, you can first greet them and then give your first name or nickname without the surname. If you say your surname to them, it sounds too formal and you’ll get laughed at.
When addressing relatives of different surnames, first greet them, then say your full name. If you have not seen them for a long time, you should say your surname and mention your parents and grandparents as well. To relatives of a younger generation, you may simply give the title by which they should call you. To subordinates or students, you should give your title and surname without the first name. These are some of the more traditional manners of addressing people.
People nowadays prefer to be more free and dislike being tied down by conventions. Elders and young people as well as bosses and subordinates usually call each other by first name without saying the surname and title. However, it is proper to address elder family members using the titles of respect. If you work in a large company, you may call your subordinates by their surnames to show your status and education. And it’s better to respectfully address your superiors by their surnames to avoid getting fired. In general, the times may change, but propriety cannot be abolished. People without a sense of propriety are like trees without bark. Without propriety we’d have no essence, and being this way, how would we be different from animals?