“I am afraid that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety” (Jane Austen).
SOME PEOPLE THINK PROPRIETY IS NOTHING MORE THAN PRIGGISHNESS AND PRUDERY, BUT IT IS ACTUALLY MUCH MORE. To act with propriety is to do that which is “proper” or “appropriate.” It is to do that which is expected by honorable, courteous people in specific situations. For example, in the situation where I am in public and I feel a big yawn coming on, it is expected that I will cover my mouth. Not to do so is an act of impropriety, and what is wrong with it is not just that it violates some arbitrary rule of etiquette, but that it betrays a disregard for the people around me.
The basic idea of propriety is consistency — a “proper” action is one that fits the person doing it and the circumstances that surround it. Let’s say that I am a man, I am sixty years old, I am a Christian, and I am on a crowded subway in New York. There is a certain expectation that my conduct will fit both who I am and the circumstances in which I find myself. If it doesn’t, my actions are “unbefitting.” Propriety, then, is a certain kind of consistency or harmony in our lives.
What is proper is defined (to some extent) by tradition and culture. Over time, it changes, and doing it always requires the exercise of judgment. But that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Imagine a husband who had no regard for what is proper for a man to do for his wife on her birthday: “Honey, I don’t see any value in the rules of etiquette, so I’m not going to give you any card or gift on your birthday. I refuse to be bound by tradition.” Proud of his impropriety, he hurts his wife. He thinks he’s bucking tradition, but he’s merely being selfish.
Acting with propriety requires bending over backwards, being more careful than the “law” requires us to be. The Apostle Paul had this in mind when he wrote, “We aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man.” It’s not enough to do what’s within our rights — if we care about the causes we’ve devoted ourselves to, we’ll also pay attention to what those around us deem fitting. Like it or not, appropriateness is a basic part of good character.
“Without an acquaintance with the rules of propriety, it is impossible for the character to be established” (Confucius).