Here and There – With Another
At the beginning of 2023, the New York Magazine decided to publish an update – on good manners: Do You Know How to Behave? Are You Sure? (2 February 2023). 140 rules to live by, and the result is fascinating. It was deliberately timed, focussing on the promise of being able to return to spending time with other people, given we seemed to be reaching the latter stages of the impact of the global Covid pandemic. The world has changed, they article stated, and in introducing various elements of etiquette, the authors observed: “The old conventions are out (we don’t whisper the word cancer or let women off the elevator first anymore, for starters). The venues in which we can make fools of ourselves (group chats, Grindr messages, Slack rooms public and private) are multiplying, and each has its own rules of conduct. And everyone’s just kind of rusty. Our social graces have atrophied.”
The list is organised under a series of headings: Friends and Lovers, Strangers and Others, Going Out and Staying In, Work, The City, Parenting, and Posting and Texting. As that list of headings suggests, we are being alerted to the fact that those guides on the right way to behave in the USA produced by Florence Hartley, Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt may be a little out of touch, together with Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. Equally dated are the English guides, from the Darling Academy’s English Etiquette through to Henry Hitching’s wonderful book Sorry: the English and Their Manners. There are more recent guides of course, among which How Not To Be a Dick by Meghan Doherty is a stellar example: “On the one hand, nobody wants to be a dick. On the other hand, dicks are everywhere! They cut in line, talk behind our backs, recline into our seats, and even have the power to morph into trolls online.” OK! So, what are today’s rules?
Where to begin? I think the most sensible approach would be to follow the headings set out in the New York Magazine article. We will begin with Friends and Lovers. Oh, and before we do, one other preliminary: I began this blog in the belief discussing these various rules would be funny, but I soon changed my mind. It is always sensible to pay some attention to advice in case it makes sense, and much of what I read was both helpful and straightforward. However, in reading the guide I was reminded that there are some ‘new’ issues, a result of mobile phones, social media and the like. Where was I? Oh, yes, ‘Friends and Lovers’.
One of the suggestions I really liked early on was “7. While on a date, if you find you’re talking a lot, ask yourself, When was the last time I asked a question? There’s no need to keep a tally or trade queries back and forth like it’s a tennis match but do at least be aware of how long you’re holding the floor and take care to share it.” As a born-again listener, I couldn’t agree more. I do like hearing what others have to say, but I also like the odd opportunity to offer my own views. It is matter of balance. If only a good guide could actually get the garrulous to be – well, less garrulous!
The very next item was “8.It’s acceptable to tell any kind of lie in order to leave a drinks date. If the conversation is so painful you’re considering making up a story about a sick animal, your date will probably feel relieved.” Makes sense, and at little later this was followed by, “15. It’s okay to ghost after one date.” The advice is clear, but that was only after I had managed to find out that to ghost a relationship is to cut it without offering any warning or justification. “You met up for a drink after work; discussed work, school, and siblings for 90 minutes; and ended the evening with a noncommittal ‘Let’s do this again sometime.’ Now it’s been three days and you’re wondering what you owe this person you don’t particularly want to see again. You could send a text letting them down gently, but it’s also fine to say nothing. At this point, neither of you has put so much energy into the interaction that it warrants a formal ending. (And besides, nobody likes getting rejected by someone they didn’t care that much about in the first place). There are exceptions, though. If you’ve been texting a lot after the date, or you’ve clearly talked about going on another one, then there is a social contract to not ghost. Quickly say good-bye and good luck and get outta there. But, if you ghost someone, stay gone forever.”
Managing relationships can be tricky, especially if you think the contact was ephemeral, but the other person didn’t. At this point, I should reveal there were occasional interpolations in the advice. In this case, one of the authors went on to explain: “I don’t ghost people because abandonment is my central trauma and passive-aggressive has never been my style. (I’m more aggressive-aggressive.) I suppose I can understand the appeal of ghosting as an easy way to cut someone off for whatever reason, or for none at all. What I cannot understand is ghosting someone and then coming back several years later to request a favor that would have been a considerable ask even if we had remained friendly.” That implies members of your network remain members if and only because you do keep in touch. But what about a colleague, a good friend at the time, but with whom you lost touch after a few years, and yet now want to ask them something because of their knowledge or skills? Tricky?
Now we come to one of the highlights of this advice, at item 18. It is pretty stark. “If you’re a dating adult, you should own lube. It doesn’t matter who you have sex with.”
I think it is time to move on, quickly. We are now looking at advice on ‘Strangers and Others’. I liked item 30: “When casually asked how you are, say ‘Good!’ It’s neutral and doesn’t force someone to endure a trauma dump or a spiel on how ‘the world is up in flames.’” This has been one of my policies for a long time. I would only say more than ‘good’ when I was seeking advice and needing some kind of help. However, that sets a context where good isn’t good enough. The rest of the time, I agree. Be quiet.
I also liked item 37. “Don’t feel bad about standing up in the aisle immediately upon the plane landing. Flying is bad enough already. Do what you can to make things better for yourself. Just don’t knock down elderly people on the way.” I always stand as soon as I can, but I do so for a specific reason. Many people are shy, unassertive, and easily brushed aside. I stand up quickly to block the aisle, so that people in front of me can get off the aircraft easily. If it takes me a few seconds longer to get into the airport, so what! And yes, if a passenger is in a panic to get off quickly to make a connection, I’d let him or her through, of course.
Some items address newly emerged issues. “48. You can recover from misgendering someone. A classic good response: ‘Thanks for correcting me.’ Then take the initiative to push the conversation forward. After the moment has passed, you may feel the urge to get more time with the person you misgendered, either to secure their forgiveness or to assure them (and yourself, let’s be honest) that you’re an ally. Resist it! Don’t, for example, remind them of your progressive bona fides (‘My best friend is trans!’), and don’t find them later to apologize some more.”
I admit I find the issue of using personal pronouns very tricky and I’m happy to be corrected (although I often forget what I was told!). Incidentally, this was followed by another piece of advice, which was that “if you see someone being misgendered, say something.” Apparently a simple ‘[Name] uses the pronouns they/them’ will do.
Once we got past lube and other matters, there was a lot of helpful 2020s advice. The next section dealt with ‘Going Out & Staying In’. I really liked Item 55, addressing a timeless problem. “For group dinners with friends, always split the bill evenly.” The explanation was both sensible and entertaining, pointing out that the fraught stage in any restaurant meal with other people is the arrival of the bill. “Paranoia infects the table: Who got what? And how many drinks? And you’re a vegetarian? And whose card gets points where? This is the police-interrogation room of the modern diner, bright and relentless. There is an easy solution: Split the bill evenly. This is the cleanest, easiest, most moral method for restaurant dining, and you will not encounter half, or even a quarter, of the amount of problems as you do when everyone looks at what they specifically paid and forgets to add tax, together with such dilemmas as “What if I just got a salad?” Split the bill evenly. “What if my friend had three drinks?” Split the bill evenly. “What if I don’t want dessert?” Split the bill evenly. Like all aspects of adult life, it is briefly annoying and then it is totally fine.”
There are some complications, however. In the next item, the authors added a further point: “But if you’re drinking and I’m not, offer to pay the entire tip.” OK. While we are on issues to do with sharing and mathematics, item 59 read: “The correct number of slices of pizza to order for a group of X people is 2X + X/3. Any fewer is for misers; any more risks catatonia. N.B.: This rule holds for “classic” New York–style pizza.” So there!
There are other problems that can arise when dining out, and the article took a break from suggesting good practice by quoting some rules from an anonymous server at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York. “I’ve been working in restaurants for 13 years and I feel like there’s been a shift. Restaurant etiquette has lapsed; people, at this point, treat everything like their living room. Part of that has to do with the commodification of bourgeois luxury: Now everyone has a car service at their fingertips, everyone has on-demand concierge delivery of literally anything they need.” Clearly, the readers of New York Magazine are affluent! The server continues: “There’s a complete lack of shame that is linked specifically to smartphones. Some people will come to a restaurant and just be like, “What the fuck do you mean you don’t have Apple Pay? I don’t have a card.” Cash has disappeared to the extent that if someone’s like, “Sorry, you can only tip cash,” people are like, “I literally can’t.” But you should carry a card with you in case the place doesn’t have Apple Pay and have a little bit of cash for when the card reader is down.”
Time to move on to item 72. “If you like them, text people within three hours of hanging out with them. If you didn’t receive a text from me within three hours after our hanging out, it would signal that I did not have a good time and I am simply not interested. I understand that not all of my cohort follows this rule, but they should. It is rude not to confirm that a good time was had. I don’t care if we’ve known each other for 15 years; I’d like verification of a successful hang. Most of my friends don’t do this, so I tend to be the one to follow up. That said, a response to a confirmation of a solid hang is absolutely necessary. If I text “That was so nice,” I’d like to hear “I love you so much” in return within the hour. If a first meeting was nice — not even great! — the person who did not ask for the hang should be the first to text that they had a good time. How else am I supposed to know we like each other? My mother used to comfort me that it takes two to tango, but the older I get, the more I see how capable I am of dancing with another person’s limp body. If nobody texts within three hours post the initial meetup, not only should you not expect a friendship, but you should come to terms with the fact that neither of you respects the other.” I think I got all that.
I got very excited when I saw the next heading – but it covered items 84-91, and all there was “There are new rules of tipping. It is now almost impossible to make any sort of purchase without being confronted with a Square screen asking for 15, 20, or 25 percent. And not just for a coffee: Buying a water bottle at the deli or crackers at a specialty grocery store now sometimes also prompts the option. This might irritate or confuse you, but the reality is there are new social expectations around what deserves a tip.” Um, so just agree on the %age??
The next section dealt with work. Item 99 was “Ignore your colleagues on the subway. I like to think of my subway commute as “me time.” I know, objectively speaking, that this is untrue, that the train during rush hour is jammed with people who are not me. Nevertheless, under certain ideal circumstances, the bustling subway is a place where I can step outside my life, a no-man’s-land between home and office, where, on the way to work, I can read a book in the quiet lull before battle and where, on the way back, I can reflect on the day that has passed. The commute, in the right light, is a sacred space not to be infringed upon.” Wow!
We’re on to one of the final sections, on ‘Parenting’. Right up front, the first topic in this section was 113, “You can discipline your friends’ kids, but not a stranger’s.” After discussing one example, this item ended with the observation that “The rule of the park is that the children of your friends are your children, and the children you don’t know are simply not. (If you see a child in physical danger, it is your job as an adult to step in immediately, no matter who they are. But most of the conflicts that go on between children do not constitute danger, and if you think they do, you probably haven’t been around many kids and you will learn this lesson in due time.)”. The commentary added: “Let me be clear: This rule isn’t concerned with children’s special snowflake feelings. Kids of your acquaintance are absolutely fair game for your disciplinary tactics, as far as I’m concerned. If you know my kid by name, and you see him doing something uncool, I am grateful for your swift attention to the matter. Shout his name across the park so the sound hits him like the impact of a BB. Take him to task if you must!”
Finally, we hit the contemporary world, and issues with ‘Posting and Texting’. Item 125 set one of the ground rules: “Ask before sending a super-graphic pic. This is true across the board for men communicating with women.” However, we are advised “In a spicy man-on-man venue like Grindr, dick pics are fine, but everything else requires consent.” There’s more. 137: “You have to get consent to post a conversation with a friend. No screenshots, and no copy and paste, without permission. And pictures? Get the consent in triplicate”.
To end, item 139 gave me a surprise: Post like the wind. “On Instagram, where best practices are unspoken but nearly universal, the conventional wisdom is that you should post on your main feed no more than once a day. … But if you’re going to participate in social media, the only way to have any fun with it is by consciously defying the incentives it dangles in front of you. Post excessively, indulgently, tastelessly. Maybe even take some shots with the in-app camera and post them as-is (it only seems unimaginable because you’re not thinking big enough). The curated hoto-dump carousel, polite and unintrusive, is dead; posting 15 individual photos to your main grid in one day is what freedom feels like.”
How would Florence Hartley, Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt react, or your grandparents? Apart from social media, a lot hasn’t changed. They had gossip sheets, and we have YouTube and Instagram and a host of other sites. More permissive over what we disclose, certainly less circumspect, we are still advised to be thoughtful, caring, and easy going, checking before we push the boundaries. Oh, and we should always carry our own lube!