What to Do When the World Gets Crazy and No One Knows How to Act Anymore


Interacting with humans, as someone I know pointed out recently, is “gross and hard.” You try your best while mitigating your own circumstances, conditions and predispositions, but nobody really knows what’s going on, how they’re coming off, or what delicate sensibility in someone else they’ve deeply offended. It’s gotten harder now that we all move constantly between on- and offline worlds, so the story goes.

Being alive in the world today means navigating a fresh crop of social conundrums. This is the Wild West of socializing, so we’re told, and as political correctness evolves, as more enhanced civil rights are fought for and won, as habits once considered oddities or fetishes are normalized, the newfound intersections create more and more opportunities for new-fangling, confusion, and questions as to how a person should be. In response, a flood of digital gurus has risen to help us to meet this new need and find answers. But perhaps they’re revealing something deeper about our anxieties.

Nowadays at least, civility is less class-oriented and exclusive, and more about gestures of politeness. Things that maintain the social fabric. Etiquette is ostensibly here to make all that easier, right? Sure, if we all know the rules. But since we don’t, we’re left with a void in the etiquette instruction library to rival post-fire Alexandria.

As this New York Times trend piece called “Etiquette Returns for the Digital Generation,” we learn that there’s a slew of advice-givers coming out of the woodwork to help serve this unique need:

Are manners dead? Cellphones, Twitter and Facebook may be killing off the old civilities and good graces, but a new generation of etiquette gurus, good-manner bloggers and self-appointed YouTube arbiters is rising to make old-fashioned protocols relevant to a new generation.
Their apparent goal: to help members of Generation Y navigate thorny, tech-age minefields like Paperless Post invites, same-sex weddings and online dating — not to mention actual face-to-face contact with people they encounter in the offline world.

But first: Manners never died, OK? They changed. Etiquette advice of previous decades offered instruction in the newest and latest ways to embarrass and offend that were relevant then, from videoconferencing to divorce etiquette to sex in the AIDS era to how to send a legible fax.

Nowadays, the hot probs are different. It may be rude to stand around at a party texting on your phone ignoring your guests, but it’s just as rude to ignore the text from a friend you just got asking if you can pick them up from the other party they’re at, where they happen to be too drunk to drive home from that night. Something’s gotta give.

Understanding our new modern world is certainly useful. And some of the dilemmas the Times chronicles are distinctly modern and useful, such as limiting one’s baby photos on Instagram (and, apparently, everywhere), but others, such as how to shake hands (“two or three times up and down — from the elbow and not the wrist”) or how to order fast food at the drive-thru (hint: without screaming) seem obvious, the sort of thing one gleans from merely existing in the world with a human head.

And so in the same way products in a capitalist marketplace are designed to create a need, so does etiquette advice often inadvertently add to the very anxiety it purports to help eliminate, by filling us with example after example essentially of ways to fuck it up, many of which we’d never even considered, much less realized we were guilty of.

Over the course of the piece, one is left with the feeling that we are a truly anxious bunch — especially about our bodies — as offenses like farting during yoga and grunting at the gym get some play. Others require fretting over the kind of minutia only reserved for people with the kind of free time worry about stupid shit: like whether, when you’re at a dinner party, and your 4-year-old is at home sick with a babysitter, you can say out loud that you’re taking this incoming phone call because you have a sick kid at home. Answer: Don’t.

Really? This kind of persnickety correctness about manners is pretentious, a kind of snobbery that defeats the purpose of actual good manners, which is making people feel comfortable and welcome no matter what predispositions or limitations they bring to the (literal) table. Surely any decent host, if you stopped to say, as your cellphone rang at dinner — Sorry, have to grab this, sick kid at home — would not find you rude for saying so, but perfectly polite to let people know why you’d take a call at the dinner table. Are you a human or dinner guest bot?

Likewise, in a viral vid (3 million views) called “Don’t Be That Guy at the Gym” we discover that just being a noob — a person who is obviously experiencing his first time working out in public and is Doing it Wrong — is rude as fuck. Whatever shall the long-suffering noob do? Pay for private instruction first so as to avoid looking inexperienced? I genuinely don’t get it.

Etiquette is perfectly helpful until it demands that we put more effort into perception than reality among people we allegedly want to actually be around, who allegedly actually want to be around us. Sure, try not to fart it up at yoga, but if you do have to let one go, wouldn’t all be forgiven? There’s no app to stop farts yet, people. No matter what we invent or dream of, the farting never goes gently into that good night.

Due to the ridiculousness of some of the instruction mentioned in the piece, I have to wonder whether this insurgence of etiquette “help” is about more than a whole crop of new people desperate not to grunt at the gym. We have an obsession with other people’s foibles that the Internet feeds, the ways in which people violate the social contract, unspoken or otherwise, that we can sit back and play judge and jury about, and I think in many ways the digital influx of advice-givers exists merely because there’s always more room on the Internet for another opinion. But it’s also about tapping into a hive-mind solution for disconnectedness.

Hear me out: It speaks to our craving for the kind of order and gossip-driven policing of behavior we once got from more tightly knit communities and neighborhoods, where people knew our business, where people who knew our parents could shame us for our rebellions, our indiscretions, our wild goofs. In other words, maybe we are all just dreaming of home, of the institutions that use to finger-wag us that we have all but escaped.

As adults, we often move away from that nest on purpose, and recreate our own communities, but often without anywhere near the familiarity or intimacy of our families of origin. Plus, we feel — whether it’s really true or not, grand scheme — that we are living in a time of truly rapid change. Rules and their constant reinforcement alleviates that anxiety about the ambiguity of these new intersections and helps order our world again.

Sometimes, it orders our sense of class, or satisfies our curiosities about other classes, as in this “useful” advice from Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Mark, that is bound to come up for everyone at some point or another:

“Many of these emerging etiquette issues are complicated because there are no clear-cut, black-and-white answers,” Ms. Zuckerberg said. A recent post on Dot Complicated dealt with how to respond to a request for money, something that Ms. Zuckerberg, C.E.O. of Zuckerberg Media, said she has had to deal with quite frequently. (Her advice: “Say no and say it quickly.”)

Noted! It can also order our sense of gender. Women have historically been the guardians and enforcers of etiquette. From Emily Post to the mostly female advice columnists of the previous handful of decades, women have been considered the foremost authority on what to do, how to do it, and who it’s OK to do it with.

And while they are still at the forefront of the trend — the piece says women have shown a “new interest in manners,” and there’s a Jane Austen descendent quoted in there somewhere among many other lady advice-givers— that men are finally joining this tidal wave of unspoken anxiety over implied expectation with advice on gentlemanly behavior at least speaks to our ever-growing equality as genders.

“We’re living in an age of anxiety that’s a reflection of the near-constant change and confusion in technology and social mores,” said Steven Petrow, an author of five etiquette books including “Mind Your Digital Manners: Advice for an Age Without Rules,” to be published in 2014. (Mr. Petrow is a regular contributor to The New York Times, writing an advice column on gay-straight issues for the Booming blog.)
“Whether it’s wondering how many times it is acceptable to text a date before being seen as a stalker, or what the role of parents is at a same-sex wedding,” he said, “etiquette gurus are popping out from under tablecloths everywhere to soothe all those living in fear of newfangled faux pas.”

All this direction IS helpful, to a point. But the only rule you can count on is that there really are no rules. My friend said you can never wear a tube top to a funeral, but I bet you could if the funeral was being held for the creator of the tube top.

And therein lies the rub: just as we need to be reminded of manners, we need to be reminded of their fluidity and situational application. Just don’t get too tangled in the newfangled. Underneath the hermetically sealed correctness of how to act among strangers and friends in our modern crazy world, there should always be room for the well-meaning goofs of our guests, who are, after all, just people.

Sure, we can all be nicer and less offensive. That would help. But we also all know that the Internet has made everyone a big bunch of bumbling, distracted people in many ways, and that it’s unlikely to get anything but worse. And so collectively, we can all try to be better, but we can also recognize that at worst, we all stand guilty of the same thing: trying to tend to both worlds simultaneously when no one is actually a good multitasker. This understanding — this space to be the people we all are now doing the things we do, acknowledging we’re all guilty — is also a form of etiquette. Just one that rarely gets mentioned.

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