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Etiquette v Apathy

“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: it hath no stalk: the bud shall yield no meal: if so be it yield, the strangers shall swallow it up.”  Hosea 8:7

I think it can be demonstrated that the greatest adversary to etiquette, to polite behavior in any sense really, is apathy.  It isn’t anger, greed or cruelty – those certainly aren’t the helpful handmaidens they once were – indeed, they have often twisted etiquette to their own devious machinations.  One can use the protocols of an institution to trap people in complex webs of mistakes, and you can always crack a bottle of Champagne open for the “Your Own Petard” hoisting events on display wherever revenge is being plotted.  And by all means, don’t forget the popcorn on your trip to wherever the hot-headed and heavy-handed meet to shout expletives at each other.

But these are all active, violent acts against good behavior.  They are the equivalent of a murder – a shocking event that horrifies us all and unites the community together to prevent its happening again.  You see the same reaction after acts of terrorism, or natural disasters, the inward spirit of strength and support, just writ small for our examples of social hostility, instead of the grand comings together more expansive situations require.

But one cannot sustain that level of certainty on a day to day basis.  “We’re all in this together!” turns into “Where did you learn how to drive?” on your morning commute.  Our internal lives are essentially selfish, and self-preservation is one of the defining characteristics of what it means to be biologically alive.  Grow, reproduce, go ahead – that’s the order of things.

Even bacteria know that.

We have to exist, however, in tandem with the environment, and that includes the people on our planet and their (disgusting/delightful) manners.  There’s nothing for it – no man is an island and all that jazz – and so we develop systems and rules and languages to facilitate that process and make it as pleasant as possible.

You don’t agree?  Take traffic.  If we all could just drive wherever we like whenever we felt like it – no lights, no speed limit, no stop signs – the result would be absolute chaos.  Try evacuating in front of a hurricane.  If that’s too morbid, try parking near a Justin Bieber concert (I know – I’ll take the hurricane instead).  We can’t all go at once, and we can’t all do what we like whenever.  Sure it’s fine if there is enough supply or variation of what we want or need, but as soon as the day after Thanksgiving, we’re stepping on heads to get a 10$ video game console.

So we make rules and procedures, many of them seemingly arbitrary (and a great many more completely arbitrary) just to put up slight barriers between wanting something and getting it.  If it’s a destination, it’s a traffic light.  If it’s front row at a teen heartthrob concert, it’s ticketmaster.

I think my metaphor is getting away from me, but you know exactly what I mean.

What apathy does is more like the frog in the pot or slow slicing – it’s the creeping normalcy of “Why bother?”.  We accept less and less civility, and accept a little more and a little more, and before you know it you’re throwing punches at checkout.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s delightful book The Tipping Point, he describes the transformation of New York from a lawless legend of muggings and rape to the squeakily cleaned tourist trap it has become, starting, in no small part, by the police arresting and handcuffing people who tried to jump the turnstile in the subway.  It is this demonstration that we will not tolerate the slightest infraction of a law that begins to instill respect for all the laws.  Crime goes down.

That’s a gross demonstration of what I like to call Queue Theory, the reinforcement of proper behavior by tut-tutting queue jumpers.  Etiquette needs the same thing, a bevy of grandmotherly guardswomen going about harumphing whenever someone does something dreadful, but not illegal.

They could carry paintball guns to tag the perp as unfit for society, but only for the day – or until they learned their lesson.

Aside from daydreaming a lightweight social police state, we could all do with a little more supervision, and I suggest we take the initiative to start correcting the person we care most about on a daily basis.


For that is the true victim of our apathy.  Not caring about our own behavior has a deleterious effect on the world around us.  From global warming and overpopulation, stripping resources and shittily planned cocktail parties, the mindless milling about we call existence puts us sadly not to far ahead of the aforementioned bacteria.  They’ll eat everything until their little system collapses, whether it’s a jar of agar or your fluid-filled lungs.  Surely we can one-up a single-celled organism?

And as that minor prophet pointed out, we won’t just reap the wind we sow, but the whirlwind; our own apathy will increase to consume everyone else leaving bacteriologists weeping over their petri dishes, for we have left our own unheeded wise men lost in the desert.

Probably Vegas.

So pledge to yourself, just for yourself, to stop being concerned and start caring.  Start taking the extra 30 seconds it takes to not push past someone.  To learn the phrase “Excuse me,” or “I’m sorry,” and recognize that they are merely social lubrication – you don’t have to actively seek pardon or feel genuine regret to utilize those expressions (though it would be nice).  Find your place on the complicated web of ethics, morality and humanism and stake out a section of your own principles.  Guard it jealously, but share it with those you love and trust.

And for fuck’s sake, take a single step back from the crush of the mob trying to get to the front of the line.  Look at those people, look at their behavior.  Do you want people to look at you like that?  Do you want to look at yourself in that light?

I didn’t think so.

Hear that sound, that noise you just heard in your mind?  What did it sound like?



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