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Friday roundup: Etiquette Edition

Posted by Robin Abrahams  March 15, 2013 01:12 PM

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Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about those people:

I'm sitting in the quiet car of an Amtrak train making my weekly voyage up top. There's a rule that prohibits loud talking and digital devices. Cell phone usage is also prohibited. There are signs at the top of the car labeled "Quiet Car" with the rules prominently displayed. "Quiet Car" is scrawled on the outside, also. The conductor, at the beginning of the trip, announces over the intercom, "If you can hear this you are in the quiet car..." and then explains the rules.

As I write this someone's digital device is going off. The woman apparently can't figure out how to shut it off. She does not want to repair to another car to figure this out. She wants to do it here in the quiet car. She is not alone. Somewhere around 75 percent of the time that I've ridden in the quiet car, somewhere has decided that there is a cell phone conversation they must have, or a song that they must play so that all can hear its melody blaring out the headphones.

A few people are schmucks all of the time. It's a way of life with them. Some people are perfectly decent about most things, and a schmuck about a particular category of thing--they're cheap, or prone to road rage, or chronically late. And all of us are schmucks occasionally, because we're confused or exhausted or angry or sick and life doesn't come with a stage manager in the wings to prompt you if you call for a line.

In a tribal or village situation, you could suss out who was in what category, and adjust your expectations and behavior accordingly. These are the people you avoid, these are the people you manage your interactions with, these are the people whom you cut slack if they screw up, knowing that slack will be cut unto you in your turn. 

Modern life, urban life, mobile life--everything the Amtrak Quiet Car represents--does away with that ability to sort out the daily petty insults and annoyances our fellow humans subject us to. There is nothing unnatural about the insults and annoyances themselves--living together is hard. Even the most harmonious animal groups have their regular little squabbles. But a constant parade of one-off interactions, I'm increasingly convinced, is going to lead people to perceive a wicked decline in behavioral standards, even if each individual is behaving fairly decently. And human nature being what it is, if it seems no one else is following the rules, then you'd be a sucker to keep following them yourself. And so a vicious cycle ensues. 

Many of the questions I get have to do with this kind of attribution anxiety--they boil down to "Should I take this offense seriously or let it go?" To which my answer is, of course, a ringing "It depends!" I do my best, with the information given, to suggest what it depends on, and ways the LW can think through the situation and some choices of what to do about it. But the God's-eye perspective on What Really Happened and what response would be appropriately calibrated between mercy and justice--that's not in stock.

(It's amusing when you run into the occasional person who believes that sort of knowledge is in stock. One of my undergrad students, still in a rudimentary phase of feminism, asked me during a class discussion if I would leave my then-boyfriend if he hit me. No matter how hard I tried to explain that I knew the dude, she remained completely offended and scandalized when I explained that no, I would get him to a neurologist and do everything possible to safeguard both his wellbeing and my own.)

Meanwhile, there was a bit of a blowup in the NYTimes over a column by Nick Bilton in which he argued for a leaner and, many readers thought, meaner version of etiquette for the digital age:

Some people are so rude. Really, who sends an e-mail or text message that just says "Thank you"? Who leaves a voice mail message when you don't answer, rather than texting you? Who asks for a fact easily found on Google?
Don't these people realize that they're wasting your time?

Of course, some people might think me the rude one for not appreciating life's little courtesies. But many social norms just don't make sense to people drowning in digital communication.

The article was troll bait, in a sense, guaranteed to bring out howling defenders of the Old Order. (Was it really necessary to say that he primarily communicates with his mother via Twitter?) But I thought Mr. Bilton's overall point was well-taken: think before you communicate. Is this message necessary? Am I using the appropriate technology? Am I asking another person for information I can just as easily get for myself? Mr. Bilton answers some critics in a blog entry:

Marin, LA: This article just reeks of self-entitlement and impatience that many people have developed in the digital era. 
Nick Bilton: I agree that there is impatience in the digital era, but it is not self-entitlement. The reason for a lack of patience is the unending technologies that are commonplace today. As I've written before, digital communications methods do not have an off-the-hook option, as landline phones did in the years before answering machines. E-mail, text, chat and a long list of other means of digital conversation simply can't be turned off. You are either connected, or you have to connect later. It creates an unmanageable flood of messages and as technology won't fix the problem, people have chosen to do this by creating new forms of digital etiquette.

Boston etiquette, I think, is good on the problem identified by Mr. Bilton, but not by Mr. Coates. Despite the lack of signage on its streets, Boston etiquette puts a high value on clear and efficient communication, as befits a city known for information technology, higher education, and a harbor. Why, sometimes a single raised finger is all that is necessary to communicate a range of emotions and ideas from one Bostonian to another. Our style may seem blunt and aggressive to outsiders, but that's only because we consider being task-focused a way of showing respect for others' busy schedules.

On the other hand, Bostonians tend to assume the worst of anyone who does inconvenience or annoy them, however inadvertently. It's notable in Kansas and the Midwest that someone who is clearly driving badly because they are confused *coughs, points to self* is more likely to get a friendly wave or a shouted offer of help at a traffic light than angry honks and obscene gestures. (And this is considering that everything is fairly flat and well-labeled out there, so there's not nearly as much of an excuse for getting lost to begin with.)

Boston Terriers, of course, have exquisite etiquette. This little guy, Boogie, belongs to a talented artist maned Lili Chin who has this wonderful poster on canine body language.


I bet any dog-happy kid would love to have this in their room, so that they could learn dog language and teach their friends how not to make an interspecies "faux paw."

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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