Modern manners: A complete guide to etiquette in the digital age
Saturday 21 May 2011
When John H Young published his Guide to the Manners, Etiquette and Deportment of the Most Refined Society in 1879, it became a bestseller in his native America.
After you've read its 400 pages of rules governing everything from napkin use to dismounting a horse, you feel that you could deal with anything day-to-day life might chuck in your direction. If it were 1879. It isn't 1879, though, and while Young presents an idealised version of Victorian life (nowhere does he address "being accosted by a drunkard" or "coping with gout") it's clear that behaviour has changed radically.
For instance, his assertion that you should offer your own reading material to others on a train before settling down to read it yourself is laughably out of step with the habits of modern commuters. The internet in particular is having a profound effect on our social lives: the esteemed American rapper, 50 Cent, thinks it's fine to tell 1.5 million people on Twitter that he's watching porn, while civil servants sound off about their colleagues using language that would turn the air purple.
The web is, by any standards, a maelstrom of unhinged lunacy. No one is who they say they are; they hide behind aliases like bubblewrap23 and either insult or stalk you. Random people ask to be your friend, and when you agree they swamp you with junk mail about their new band called Meatmonger. We really need a new set of rules to help us become level-headed beacons of decency in the internet age – but as far as I'm aware, it doesn't exist.
If John H Young were still alive to see the abuse that's dished out on Facebook between people who are notionally "friends", I think he'd probably tear up his section on "The Pernicious Influence of Indolence", ignore his own advice about never ridiculing others, and pen a withering anti-guide, detailing the ways in which technology is creating a Most Unrefined Society...
Introductions and Meetings
Thanks to Facebook, facilitating introductions between like-minded friends is a breeze. No longer does one have to suffer the prolonged anxiety and crippling expense of throwing a party, or endure the social embarrassment of introducing people who end up hating each other's guts. You can just click a "Suggest Friends" link and let them get on with it. The sentence, "Sandra, I'd like you to meet Dave, he works in marketing, Dave, this is my good friend Sandra" need no longer be uttered; Sandra can see Dave's name on Facebook, she knows he works in marketing and that he has a fondness for death metal. And who their mutual friends are. Bingo. If Sandra and Dave then end up meeting in what we now call "real life", the correct procedure is for one party to say, "I think I'm your friend on Facebook", then to nervously smile at one another, and almost imperceptibly move their heads forwards and sideways for approximately two seconds to assess whether a kiss on the cheek is on the cards. If that's not happening, a half-hearted wave will suffice. If the kiss is attempted, Sandra should turn her head 90 degrees to the left or the right to avoid any possibility that her lips come into the equation. Dave should then attempt to kiss the opposite cheek too, fail, then ask Sandra what she's been "up to recently".
Calls and Visiting
This is by no means a nationwide trend, but for many city dwellers the act of popping around to someone's house to say hello has been entirely displaced by the text message, instant message or the Tweet. For decades, the stock response to the doorbell ringing has been an optimistically curious, "I wonder who that is?"; today it's more likely to be an irritable, "Who on earth is that?", followed by a nagging suspicion that something terrible has happened. While previous generations have pondered the "cup of sugar" issue – whether such calls are a front for some other mission, why these people don't just go and buy some sugar, how many cups of sugar to give them before making a harassment complaint – the modern equivalent is the request to borrow a wi-fi password. You should only give this out if you have sufficient technical savvy to be able to change it a few days later; the local community won't necessarily believe you when you blame your arrest for copyright transgression (or worse) on "that weird bloke next door".
In 1879, Young was very clear that during face-to-face conversation, "all exaggeration and slang are detestable". Today, it's perfectly acceptable to embrace both. Indeed, there are times when exaggeration and slang seem to be all we've got. While there may have been distaste in Victorian times for vulgarisms such as, "How immensely jolly", now one can confidently deploy phrases such as "Have a word", "Jog on", or "Up yours" at bus stops and in bistros without causing distress. Speaking one's mind wherever possible – regardless of the effect it might have upon others – is to be encouraged. "Sort of" and "like" should be used as a sort-of-like ad hoc punctuation, and in moments of emotion or stress one should try to recall and clumsily piece together any overwrought monologues that you might have heard while watching soap operas on your plasma TV, like: "I'm not being funny or anything, but seriously, if you so much as set a foot through that door right now, right, it's going to be the biggest mistake you've ever made in your life, and I'm not exaggerating, you bastard." That kind of thing.
We've retained many of the dining room's traditional codes of conduct. Don't put your elbows on the table, don't cram too much food into your mouth, avoid putting your knife in your mouth (although that's more of a health and safety issue, than etiquette) and don't talk with your mouth full. Don't complain about the food that you're eating, particularly if your mouth is full of the food you're complaining about. Dining out, by contrast, should consist of complaining about pretty much everything – decor, service, food, ambience – and generally making as much fuss as possible. You're paying, after all. The correct use of mobile phones at the dining table is often the subject of heated debate: phones should be placed face down approximately two inches to the left of your fork, and set to "vibrate". Incoming calls and texts permit you to immediately flip the phone over, gauge the importance of the communication, then glance surreptitiously at your dining companions before either saying, "I just have to deal with this", or "That can wait until I pretend to go to the toilet in about three minutes' time".
Mobile communication has revolutionised the ancient art of walking about. When taking a call on the street, one should immediately become oblivious to one's surroundings and saunter about, randomly. When the call is terminated, you must then take a few seconds to assess where the hell you've ended up, before rejoining your original course. Asking for directions is no longer the done thing; instead, consult Google Maps on your smartphone. If Google Maps isn't working, start screaming and praying. Tipping one's hat to acquaintances has, for many years now, been replaced by the act of shouting loudly from car windows. Or repeatedly hollering to a figure on the opposite pavement until you give up on them and continue your journey. Texting while walking can be dangerous. This is manifestly obvious to anyone who has witnessed near-misses with vehicles caused by people jabbing their thumbs repeatedly at a miniature keyboard. Despite this, continue doing it anyway. The odds are probably stacked in favour of you surviving. Just about.
The process of finding love has changed irrevocably in recent times. You're more likely to glimpse a sparkling blue eye behind a lock of golden hair across a crowded webpage than a crowded room. The rulebook of online courtship hasn't yet been written: do you pen several stanzas of heartfelt love poetry, demonstrating your obsession with WH Auden, without realising that your prospective partner actually lives in Chelyabinsk and doesn't speak English? Or do you just switch on your webcam and show them your genitals? The answers to these burning questions of etiquette are "no" and "no" respectively. Base your opinion of a prospective partner almost entirely on their online appearance, despite the fact that the picture was probably taken five years ago, from a distance, at a weird angle, and has been digitally manipulated in Photoshop. Don't respond to overtures of affection immediately; leave it for a couple of weeks. Make them sweat, so when you finally get back to them they'll burst into tears of gratitude and come running. When you finally meet in a bar and discover that you don't like them much after all, pretend to take a call on your mobile from a distressed flatmate who's apparently broken their leg getting out of the bath, and leave swiftly without paying the bill.
Travel and Public Transport
There are times in modern life where one becomes bored of one's mobile phone ringtone and fancies changing it to something more raucous. The upper deck of a bus is the correct place to explore the dozens of options on offer. As per street etiquette, when speaking on your mobile phone on public transport, pay no heed to those around you. Imagine that you're in some kind of soundproof bubble, allowing you to sound off at great volume about your trip to the STI clinic or to complain unnecessarily about the fact that you only earn £55k a year at the age of 25. After hanging up, wonder for a moment why it could be that everyone is staring at you. Put it down to the fact that your hair is looking particularly nice today, and make your next call. When travelling on trains late at night with a friend, it's polite to offer them one earpiece of your stereo headphones so you can both have a faintly uninvolving mono experience of the last Adele album. Fall asleep on each other's shoulders, end up stranded at some grim terminus and argue about who should pay for the 30-mile taxi journey back to civilisation.
The living room is the crucible of family life, the place where parents and children can sit quietly together, staring at their respective LCD screens while occasionally glancing up at that big LCD screen in the corner. Be sure to take it in turns to use the Nintendo DS, the iPad and the laptop to instil a sense of co-operation, sharing and togetherness. Keep verbal contact to a minimum; if you wish to contact a family member in the same building, send them an instant message or an e-mail outlining a tentative plan for a face-to-face exchange. If urgent contact is required in an emergency, one is permitted to call for a family member; the correct response is for said family member to say, "Yeah, in a minute" while they reluctantly log out of their chatroom window, Facebook wall, Twitter account, Angry Birds game or Chat Roulette session, before looking up with a glazed, withering expression and saying, "What?". Keep in mind the old poem: "Never a tear bedims the eye/ That World of Warcraft cannot dry/ Never a lip is curled in pain/ That Bebo won't make right again".
Games and Amusements
Online gaming brings crowds of people together with the shared goal of blotting out as much of their real lives as possible. One is permitted to play addictive one-player games for sessions lasting as long as 18 to 20 hours, until you've been reported missing by family and friends concerned for your well-being. Multiplayer games have few of the rules of etiquette that govern their online equivalents; for example, there is no polite way to inform an opponent that they're about to have their upper torso blasted off with a BKP 2700 "Enforcer" Cannon, so just go ahead and do it. It might not be cricket, but that's because it's not cricket. Cheating isn't only permissible, it's positively encouraged; any means by which you can lever an advantage over your opponents should be embraced and used to the full – not least because your opponents will be doing exactly the same thing. An online word game should only be attempted with access to services designed to help people win at online word games, thus reducing said game to a battle between computers, and humans assuming the role of passive go-betweens. Be neither gracious in defeat, nor humble in victory; refuse rematches with people you have lost to, and after winning send your opponent a message saying something along the lines of, "OMG i pwnd j00 n00b!" in order to rub it in.
Parties and Events
The formal party invitation with an RSVP request has largely been replaced by the Facebook Event. It's a frequently misused instrument that has, on more than one occasion, resulted in a suburban semi-detached house being besieged by 200 young people in pursuit of fun who then vent their frustration at the lack of fun on offer by laying waste to the fixtures and fittings. Unless one has a mastery of the various privacy levels on Facebook (something that currently requires years of study to achieve) it might be best to stick with bits of card, envelopes and stamps. A more common use of the Facebook Event is to invite people to a performance which requires guests to pay an entrance fee. If you are invited to such a thing, and are busy that particular evening, the correct procedure is to immediately post a lengthy reason for your non-attendance on the "wall" of the event, helping to build a magnificent array of excuses that will plunge the performers into a blind panic and make them think that no one is coming. If you aren't busy but have no intention of going, click the "Attending" button regardless, because it will give the performers a sense of excitement and purpose. When it's all over they probably won't remember whether you were there or not in any case. If you are a performer, you should repeatedly bombard the same set of friends with requests that they watch you read poetry/ play the guitar/ deliver weak stand-up comedy, until they become so irritated at being constantly informed about your static career development that they completely curtail your online friendship.
In the Workplace
Allow technology to take the edge off the tedium of your working day by sending flirtatious e-mails to that person you fancy in human resources, unaware that the IT department are reading everything you write and are guffawing themselves hoarse at your romantic overtures. When sending e-mails from your work machine, adopt a care-free attitude towards addressing them, thus ensuring that your mum receives a spreadsheet containing budget forecasts for 2011-12, and your line manager receives an animated GIF of a naked man trying to kiss a horse. Strategies to conceal the ludicrous amount of time you spend on the internet rather than achieving second-quarter objectives include: sighing loudly and muttering "something really has to be done about this as a matter of some urgency"; walking purposefully through the office every 30 minutes while carrying a stack of brightly coloured folders, pursing your lips and shaking your head; and masking your giggles at a YouTube video of a cat playing the piano by faking a coughing fit and excusing yourself to fetch a glass of water.
If you thought that learning Ukrainian phrases from a guidebook before a visit to Kiev was tricky, the intricacies of the web's bizarre syntax may leave you clutching your head in panic. Sarcasm is rampant and almost indistinguishable from non-sarcasm. Some words are misspelt for comic effect; others aren't, but telling one from the other requires superhuman concentration. And because online clans hate outsiders, no one's going to take you aside and give you lessons, pointing out that LOL doesn't mean "lots of love", or that being "pwnd" isn't something to be proud of. One thing that's possible to master after a few hours of practice is the addition of kisses to written correspondence. Electronic communication has led us to develop an intriguing and deeply complex emotional cipher in the form of the letter "x" appended to texts, instant messages and e-mails. Work correspondence should remain free of kisses unless a) you have attended some kind of social event with the other person, and b) you have a vague feeling of attraction towards them, however fleeting and insubstantial. You are generally obliged to match the number of kisses you have received when composing your reply; downgrading an "xx" to an "x", or an "x" to no kiss at all can cause the self-esteem of your correspondent to plummet drastically. Three is the maximum number of kisses you should employ, unless you are writing to a lover, or family member, or penning a furious letter of resignation to your employer that requires a sarcastic sign-off.
If you buy faulty goods from a shop, you take them back for a refund. If, however, you buy faulty goods from geezah149 using an auction site or e-commerce facility, you should contact geezah149 with a suitably furious complaint, using many capital letters and exclamation marks. Geezah149 will, if he bothers replying to your complaint at all, then say "You're wrong" or "What goods?", which will then kick off a stressful six-week period of argument and counter-argument. Ultimately, this will result in the total disappearance of geezah149 from the face of the internet, and you left holding some object that only cost you £3.99 but has nevertheless caused you to invest approximately 10 man-hours attempting to assert your rights as a consumer. Don't let that be the end of the matter, though. Carry the resentment with you for months, if not years. Vow to get your revenge by any means possible, and state categorically that you will never buy anything from the internet again, before going online and buying something from the internet.
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