There is no way around: Forties makes us weird. Humans haven’t evolved as social animals for thousands of years to sit alone in their homes, communicating only by typing and speaking through a series of small digital boxes.
After almost a year of being locked out of Covid, I completely lost the ability to chat. I was not awesome before, but at least I got to say hello and exchange jokes at the daycare. Now when I see someone I know in person, not even friends! Just knowledge! – I just watch them as my eyes slowly fill with tears. You’d think that Zoom and email, Twitter, and TikTok might offer a bit of solace to people lacking in contact, but after eleven long months, it also becomes more difficult to negotiate those interactions. Alone in our homes, we are pure id. We’re screaming back and forth into the social media black hole as we boil another pot of ramen for dinner.
“You have to recognize when it sounds like a ‘witch hour’, aka everyone is ready to be crazy about anything»Says Anne Helen Petersen, author of I can’t even: how millennials became the burnout generation, by email. “When it seems like everyone in your feed is using social media as a funnel for emotions that have nowhere to go, what happens a lot now – that’s when you close your laptop or close the app. “
If you too have a hard time connecting with people healthier way, I have a resource that I will now share with all of you. When I am lying in my bed, mentally berating myself for being unmistakably awkward again, I reread my favorite highlighted pages from this faithful 19th century companion, Arthur Martine Etiquette Manual and Guide to True Politeness.
Rules of the road
Etiquette manuals get a bad rap, especially since many of the more famous ones available on Amazon and Project Gutenberg date back to the 1860s. They seem as useless, outdated, rigid and confining as the corsets and gloves that were. de rigueur clothes at the time.
Americans, in particular, don’t seem impressed by rigid social codes. Unlike, for example, in the hit drama Netflix Bridgerton, which takes place in London during the time of the Regency, the consequences of social errors in the United States in 2021 seem small. These days your parents don’t force you to get married if you’re not chaperoned with a guy in the backyard. We don’t even have chaperones.
The label has also long been used as a tool to enforce racial hierarchies. You don’t have to admit that you are a racist if you can say that you don’t like someone who is loud or aggressive. You don’t have to admit you’re sexist if you can just say you didn’t hire a woman because she was wearing the wrong clothes.
But even as we started to tear down the social norms that were working against us, we forgot that we need at least some guardrails. Nowhere is this clearer than on the Internet, where spirits are skyrocketing, reading comprehension is low, and an experience with an air fryer and a hot dog can turn into fiery speech that lasts for days.
We are all expected to intuitively know how to navigate this space, especially those of us who have grown up peering through chat rooms and messages on AIM. But it’s hard to remember basic social rules, especially now that you can’t close the app, go to the bar, and have a friend say, “This is crazy. Don’t sign up.” That’s why you might need someone as wise as Emily Post, which will gently prompt you to remember “instinctively considering the feelings of others”. Good manners are not about learning which fork to use. You learn manners because you are surrounded by people, even when you are alone, and you have to care about how others are feeling.
How to behave
I’ve been obsessed with etiquette textbooks ever since my parents signed me up for a cotillion class in college. If you skip all the parts about how the horse-drawn carriage is the most elegant form of transportation and how to greet someone at the opera, there are many etiquette textbooks that remain surprisingly relevant today. My favorite is Arthur Martine’s, because its prescriptions are much more general, and the book has not lost any of its sharpness or its humor for nearly 200 years since its writing.