Etiquette. The word may seem quaint and ironic to progressive New Yorkers, bringing to mind doilyed scenes of high tea with extended pinkies and stilted conversation. After all, many of the original “rules” were based on traditions steeped in emotional constipation—hardly appropriate for a modern, expressive, liberated city. But, in fact, the nature of New York is precisely why we need etiquette more than ever. First of all, it’s so crowded: This city is home to almost a million more people than it was fifteen years ago. We’re literally on top of each other: We share wireless, cram into subways and cubicles, and rent shared apartments with roommates years after our peers in the rest of the country have invested in a summer home.
And these days, there are unprecedented opportunities for new offense: You’ve got interfaith-interracial partners, gay married couples with kids from a best friend–cum–surrogate, friends in ridiculously disparate income brackets, threesomes, twosomes with an “understanding.” Who walks the bride down the aisle—especially when there are two brides? (Anyone she damn well pleases, most likely.) And what does the polite guest bring to an “I’m Divorced!” party? (First, find out who got possession of the good crystal.) How do you react when someone introduces a colleague to you as “my lover”? (Step one: Do not spit out drink.)
And that’s just the beginning—in a new era, age-old questions become vexing all over again. As a city of early adopters, New York has embraced countless communication-facilitating services and gadgets, which have simultaneously brought us closer together and pushed us further apart. On the one hand, technology is the great equalizer; on the other, it’s created brand-new sticky situations. We expand our social networks via Friendster and MySpace but often end up with an unmanageable list of mere acquaintances or even strangers. We can feel like we know someone intimately whom we’ve never met while never speaking to the person who’s worked down the hallway for the past four years.
Traditionally, New Yorkers have had a reputation as habitually, even genetically, rude. (It’s the one place in the world where the phrase “fuhgeddaboudit!” sounds less like a pardon than a threat.) And, yes, it will always be a source of local pride to be savvy and street-smart. Twenty years ago, when crime was up and graffiti was more than just guerrilla marketing, New Yorkers could be forgiven for walking around with their defenses up. But our crime rate is now one of the lowest in the country among big cities, so we can be polite without getting mugged. Usually.
If blogs, reality television, tell-all memoirs, talk shows, lo-risers, and overly loud cell-phone conversations (“Really? A goiter? Where?”) all mean our once-held notions of privacy and personal space have evolved—or devolved—to the point where they’re barely recognizable, does that mean discretion is obsolete? That civility is extinct? That manners just don’t matter anymore? Some would say, Of course not! Some, Absolument pas. Still others, Up yours! To which we ask, Can’t we all just get along?
We say yes. To find out how, read on. Or rather, please read on.