“Change in etiquette usually comes slowly, just as changes come slowly in the dictionary,” Amy Vanderbilt wrote in her book on manners, published more than half a century ago. Vanderbilt was wise not to qualify her statement. Change usually comes slowly. But look at the etiquette of public space today, and one finds everywhere great and rapid change.
Technology has scrambled the lines between public and private. Cellphones make our most intimate conversations available to anyone within earshot, while headphones create zones of pure solitude even in the midst of the liveliest crowd. Smartphones and tablets allow us to spend time with art without ever leaving the office, while sophisticated new robots enable the house-bound to participate in live events remotely. Last year, the National Symphony Orchestra invited a Beam “telepresence robot” into a side box, so that a disabled man in California could see, hear and interact with the musicians at a performance.
The democratization of art and the desire to make it more accessible also has fundamentally changed how we expect people to behave in social spaces once governed by sometimes elaborate rules. The nature of those rules — are they simply the arbitrary residue of class and snobbery, or are they pragmatic guidelines for ensuring everyone can hear, see and enjoy the experience? — continue unabated, but with a twist.
Perhaps we are entering a new age of radicalism individualism, in which the very idea of enjoying public space together is giving way to something more anarchic and carnivalesque. Silence was once prized as a mark of success in many public spaces, including libraries, museums and concert halls; the vibrancy of many of those spaces, today, is measured by noise, hubbub and laughter.
And yet etiquette also is remarkably resilient, reforming in new ways, often spontaneously. Taking a selfie in a museum may be disruptive to others, and antithetical to the experience of art, yet given the option, most people will avoid walking through the line of sight and ruining someone else’s photograph. If the power goes off in a nightclub, it’s astonishing how quickly audiences will tune in and scale down their conversations to hear the unamplified music. The silence in the Quiet Car on Amtrak is more strictly governed by ordinary passengers than the stereotypical librarian of old who rode herd on unruly students a century ago.
The two most significant forces shaping our planet today — rapid urbanization and the wholesale destruction of our environment — will only increase the rate of change in etiquette. For one thing is certain: We will live in more crowded spaces, and we will increasingly live indoors, cocooned in climate-controlled zones with a few billion of our closest friends. If etiquette is simply an elaboration of the Golden Rule, or Kant’s categorical imperative — always act in such a way that you’d be happy to have everyone do as you do — then it is certain to undergo as profound and as rapid a change as we have ever experienced.
The critics of The Washington Post spend much of their lives in theaters, museums, restaurants and nightclubs, but also on buses and trains, in airports and libraries, and all the myriad public spaces of ordinary life. What follows is a report from the field, an attempt to register the changes — or not — in etiquette from a cross section of the social world. Some have chosen to codify their own rules for an evolving social realm; others have taken a more sociological look at the forces underlying old arguments about rules and manners. Yet others have wrestled with their own internal conflicts about etiquette, about the “should” and “how” of passing down rules to new audiences.
And our conclusions? None at all. But a few themes emerge. Dance critic Sarah Kaufman sees a correlation between the intensity — and rarity — of the artistic experience and collective good behavior. Dance can’t be reproduced at home on the stereo or television, so when we encounter it in the flesh, we are completely absorbed. Film critic Ann Hornaday surveys a very different medium, where audiences often forget that they aren’t in their own living room. She also points out something fundamental about etiquette: We are better at practicing it than enforcing it, and confrontation is almost always counterproductive.
Food critic Tom Sietsema regularly patrols the unruly world of eating in public, where people can be astonishingly thoughtless. Among his observations is a basic insight about character, and behavior: “Think good thoughts,” he says. Because, in the end, empathy and a blithe spirit will always yield a better experience for everyone. Classical music critic Anne Midgette wrestles with her feelings about rules, in an environment that often feels to outsiders horribly rule-bound. There are no easy answers, she says, because the passionate desire to share music with others often leads music lovers to “lapse into a rhetoric that comes off as at once defensive and bossy.”
Theater critic Nelson Pressley provides a history lesson in rowdy behavior, and insight into what it’s like on the other side of the proscenium, where actors have their own passionate feelings about audience misbehavior. Pop music critic Chris Richards offers rules for the world of amplified music, crowded clubs and a naturally more freewheeling environment. But he sees the individual clubgoer just as much a part of a collective experience as anyone at the symphony hall. “Is your behavior helping the collective energy flow more freely, or is it clogging things up?” And thus we see the basic impulse to keep etiquette alive and well in an arena designed to be antipodal to the formal, hierarchical experience of art.
In the end, that is the fundamental paradox of art and public space: We go there both to be free and to submit (through the embodiment of experience in art) to the consciousness of others; to find and lose ourselves; to be out in the world yet to escape the crushing banality of so much of the culture we have created. Art often seems incidental to the larger world of commerce, politics and celebrity, but it teaches us the most essential lesson of living well together, how to modulate our own ego and desires in the face of something larger, more important and lasting.
Read our critics’ takes on etiquette in their respective fields: