Relative Etiquette — How the Pandemic is Highlighting Cultural Adaptivity
Today I got called a selfish bitch. Why? Because I refused to share our small building elevator with a person not in my household.
I get why they are upset. In normal times, refusing to share an elevator is, indeed, pointlessly selfish, unless you have so much stuff you’re legitimately taking up all of it.
In normal times, I would never do that. The fact is, a standard 4'3 by 4'3 elevator, which is what our building has, is basically a small, enclosed box. Any virus expelled by one rider is going to go straight to the other. Even with masks and turning to face the wall, I’m simply not comfortable with it. Elevators are going to be a huge problem in places where people have to return to work and take extended elevator rides…and the number of elevators present isn’t sufficient for people to “hog” a car.
Which all reminded me of something too many of us don’t realize: Etiquette and manners are very relative.
New York, New York
I’ve been to New York once. It was an interesting experience and one I would love to repeat.
Megacities catch the imagination. Marvel Comics doesn’t just center on New York because their offices are there. Urban fantasy visits the city regularly (including mine).
There’s just…something about Manhattan. But one of the cornerstones of Manhattan’s reputation is that New Yorkers are rude.
Ask a New Yorker and they will tell you a different story. In a small town, not making a human connection with the cashier in the grocery store is rude.
In New York? Stopping to chat is being rude to the growing line of people behind you.
Rude and polite are relative. Politeness in a megacity (which only New York, Tokyo and Beijing really count as) requires things like completely ignoring people on the street, not chatting when in line, moving quickly, always moving.
Yet if somebody’s in real trouble, that entire crowd is going to stop to make sure they’re okay. Human touches don’t change.
How we treat people does, because how we treat people varies. It varies by climate, by size of settlement and by circumstances.
The pandemic has turned manners upside down. It’s rude to shake hands. It’s rude not to wear a mask. It’s rude to get too close to people.
Adjusting Is Hard
Here’s the thing: Adjusting to changed rules of etiquette is hard. Americans have a reputation for being incredibly rude overseas because our culture of loud extroversion does not gel with the manners of, say, the French. I was told when I was going to Iceland that Icelanders are rude.
Not so, they just, as a culture, don’t see the point of small talk. As somebody who hates small talk I found it quite refreshing.
Travel is the time many of us have to adjust to different etiquette…and many people don’t travel. Less than half of Americans even have a passport; and this is honestly quite understandable when we have half a continent of our own to explore.
Suddenly, we are all plunged into a world of different manners. A world where what was polite is suddenly rude. Holding the door for somebody? Not polite any more because, well, six feet. (Some things are still rude, like taking up the entire sidewalk…)
We’ve gone from being told that covering our faces makes us look like criminals to being told that covering our faces protects ourselves and others.
This is hard. We are wired to exist within one culture, one set of rules. We are adaptable as a species, but only so adaptable as individuals. I suspect that we very early in our history picked out the most culturally adaptable people in our groups and called them “diplomats.”
For people who have never had to leave the etiquette bubble they were born in, the pandemic-related changes aren’t far from being a nightmare.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hassle the people refusing to wear masks (especially the ones ranting about their freedom and in some cases resorting to violence).
But it does mean that we need to understand that this is hard for everyone.
Will there be lasting etiquette changes from this? I predict that two are most likely: Fewer handshakes and more people in the west wearing masks during cold and flu season.