Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The New Etiquette

How do you know what you're supposed to do?

One of my friends who lives in DC recently came up to visit New York. Saddled with a number of friends with loose relationships to time, she gave up on trying to gather them at any specific place and time. Instead, she picked a restaurant convenient to her, and emailed out to her friends what amounted to her visiting hours. Between 11:30 and 3:00, she said, any of us were welcome to call on her while she was holding court at this restaurant. As a further tactic to eliminate time pressure, she picked a French restaurant notorious for its poor service. That way, when all her callers showed up late, the restaurant would have no cause for annoyance because it itself was always behind schedule.

Instant Messenger also serves as a way to a lady to announce her hours "at home" these days. Several years ago, it was more common for people to log onto Instant Messenger when they wanted to talk with their friends. Nowadays, people log on and instantly put up "Away Messages" that announce where they are and what they are doing. It is also possible to lurk invisibly while watching the virtual comings and goings of others.

The whole point of this, I think, is to announce when you are available to be called on, and when you are not. It actually allows people to be polite - when they try to write to you, you probably will not be around - but if you are, they know they are not interrupting anything.

I've been inspired to write about this by what I think will be one of the greatest anthropological documents of the early 21st century: New York Metro's Urban Etiquette Handbook.

As any reasonable person will tell you, it's not that etiquette has disappeared these days, it's just that etiquette has evolved. There are as many thousands of unspoken rules as there ever were. THey allow society to function. You ignore them at your social peril.

Here are a few excellent examples from New York Metro magazine.

The Four Levels of iPod Interaction
Whom you do and don’t have to unplug for.

Continue at full blast. Consider increasing the vigor of your head-nodding and/or humming.
• Guys passing out bargain-electronics-store flyers.
• Idealistic-looking whippersnappers holding clipboards.
• Scientologists.

Subtly turn down volume.
• People in the elevator you don’t know.
• Someone attractive who sits down next to you on the train while you are listening to the Goo Goo Dolls.

Make a big show of pressing PAUSE.
• Anyone who approaches you while you’re working out.
• Non-panhandlers on the subway (may be helpfully pointing out that your bag is open, may be distracting you in a Gangs of New York–style pickpocket ruse).
• Co-workers you hate.
• Friends.
• Your parents, if you’re a teenager.

Remove headphones, toss them jauntily over shoulder.
• People in the elevator you know.
• Anyone taking your money or instructions about how to prepare your food.
• Co-workers you don’t hate.
• Your parents, if you’re an adult.
• Police officers.

Completely remove and enclose in nearest pocket/bag/ purse.
• Co-workers who could have you fired in less than an hour.
• Anyone who’s crying.
• Police officers standing next to someone who’s pointing at you and saying, “That’s him!”

Like that one? Here are some problematic social situations that I have frequently faced when I moved here, complete with enlightening answers. Some of these answers are okay, I think, and others are awful, but whether each individual rule is right or wrong is less important than whether everyone agrees to follow it. Because then we'll all understand each other. Okay guys?

What do “I’ll call you” or “Let’s have lunch” mean?
In a non-dating situation, these hollow parting comments often translate roughly to “In all likelihood, I won’t call you” and “Let’s not have lunch, though I have generally positive feelings about you.” (Though the recipient has no choice but to be agreeable in the moment and assume the phone won’t ring.) If you’re prone to such phrases, consider deploying “It was good to see you,” which, while perfectly pleasant, won’t confuse anyone.

Is it okay to use wireless if your neighbors don’t password-protect it?
Yes—free wireless is a karmic gift bestowed by the rental gods to make up for all the times you’ve experienced your neighbors’ sexual encounters, arguments, and guitar practice in startling sonic clarity, gotten roaches because you live in the same building as a restaurant, and sampled the tapestry of malodorousness that is the ethnic-food/cigarette-smoke/pet-by-product–scented apartment hallway. Your only obligation as a wireless sharer is to avoid massive bandwidth-hogging downloads.

What’s the best way to get someone off the treadmill/bike/elliptical when they’ve gone over the 30-minute limit?
Unless it’s a known repeat offender who feels like he owns the gym, face-to-face is the first course of action. Cardio-trainers can enter a trancelike state of intense Just Do It–ness that leaves them unaware of the time, and will be perfectly obliging when snapped out of their cardio-delirium. But if you ask and are rebuffed, it’s perfectly acceptable to notify the front desk, which is usually staffed by someone with intimidatingly large pectoral muscles for this very reason.

And of course, my most serious pet peeve...

When is it acceptable to Blackberry during a conversation?
When it’s a “conversation” in the sense of “The New School Presents a Conversation With Harold Bloom” and you’re there. Otherwise, never. This remains one of society’s most frequent breaches of basic human decency. Seriously, what is wrong with those people?!?


At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Melinama,
Don't you think most social problems can be solved by good manners? By "Doing unto others?"
I think living in New York makes this difficult sometimes.


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