Nursing Etiquette Was Once Part of a Nurse's Curriculum - Is it Relevant Today?


Published: 06 December 2016

Those days are long passed (thank goodness) but I wonder how much of those old rules would be of good use today in our workplaces?

Etiquette – the polite rules of a society or a professional group.

Believe it not, nursing etiquette was a subject covered in my nursing curriculum in the early 70s.

It covered such areas as:


We were shown how to stand with hands by our sides (not on hips, or in pockets, or arms crossed over the chest). When sitting, knees had to be together, legs not crossed. We had to walk quietly and swiftly, no loping along the corridors or dragging your feet.


We were advised that our hair was to be no longer than collar length or else it had to be up. No hair was to touch the face. The only earrings allowed were sleepers and if married, you could not wear your wedding ring unless it was a plain band. Perfume was not allowed and make up was to be applied ‘lightly’.

Dress Code

One had to kneel on the floor and the uniform had to be of sufficient length that the hem touched the floor, or it was off to the seamstress. A missing button was not tolerated or it was off to the seamstress again. Shoes were of the ‘proper’ lace up type and had to be clean. Caps had to be placed on the head, not too far back or too close to the front hairline. Everything was white, starched and bright.

Nursing Etiquette

Staff Interactions

As a first-year, it was mainly speak when spoken to. As a second-year, you could ask nursing-related questions to the senior nurses. As a third-year you finally had reached some level of importance: you could now talk to doctors, do a round with them and sit with the seniors in the dining room.


Above all, a nurse displayed exemplary manners. ‘…I am reporting on duty sister, yes please sister, no thank you sister, good morning sister, may I be excused sister? (off to tea or knock off time)’. Patients were referred to as Mr or Mrs unless you were invited to call them by their first name. Patients were never called Sweetie or Sunshine. You did not sit in the presence of a more senior nurse, and when the matron or her deputy entered the ward or the dining room, you stood until those grand ladies acknowledged you with a nod of the head. Then you could resume your task, or dinner!

Those days are long passed (thank goodness) but I wonder how much of those old rules would be of good use today in our workplaces? I say this because I see elements of our professional etiquette lacking.

For example:

  • An admitting nurse engaging in animated conversation with the transporting ambulance officer (totally ignoring the anxious patient…)
  • The nurse (male or female) bending over to reveal an expanse of tattooed, lower-back flesh (no i’m not against tattoos but if they’re of a risqué symbol on a normally covered body part, then keep them out of public view!)
  • Nurses calling each other ‘love’ or ‘darl
  • Uniform blouses or shirts unironed
  • No welcome of a new admission, and no introduction of who you are and what you are doing this shift
  • ID badges that are out of sight
  • Two nurses holding a personal conversation over the top of the patient they are attending to
  • A sorry lack of courtesy and respect between each other (hanging up phones without a proper conversation closure, butting into conversations without a ‘pardon me…’, orders barked at staff instead of polite directions –  and definitely no ‘please’ added on, staff being ignored or the listener rolling their eyes back in exasperation without a word spoken, and so the list goes on…)

What must be remembered is that as a profession we are under constant scrutiny, especially by our patients and the public, and as old hat as it may seem, how we wear our uniform and how we conduct ourselves will have great bearing on how much the patients in our care trust us and are confident that we are knowledgeable in the performance of our work.

To further illustrate my point, consider this: how confident would we feel if, on first visit to a solicitor, s/he was wearing a tropical coloured shirt, cargo pants and sandals. The fact that s/he may have graduated top of his/her class is now forgotten. How many times do we base our appreciation (or lack thereof) of a particular shop or store on the behaviour of the front counter person? If the sales transaction was pleasant, warm and interactive we will probably go back. However, if the sales person chewed gum, made no eye contact and talked in monosyllabic grunts, we are more likely to go somewhere else next time.

Nursing etiquette is an old-fashioned term, but many of the social graces first described are still relevant today so that we may continue to promote a competent and professional image.