Just Because Some Journalists Are Incredibly Neurotic Doesn't Mean Everyone Else Is
An unintentionally revealing etiquette list from New York Magazine
Sara and I were trying to figure out what rubbed us so much the wrong way about New York magazine’s cover story about etiquette, “The New Rules.” After all, taken in isolation, some of the etiquette suggestions in the piece are correct. But the overall tone is way off.
“Do you know how to behave?” it asks, next to an illustration of a nail-biting nervous Nellie. “The ways we socialize and date, commute and work are nearly unrecognizable from what they were three years ago,” it declares. “Everyone’s just kind of rusty. Our social graces have atrophied.”
Obviously the first problem with this is: Who’s we, bucko? It’s annoying that the piece assumes the reader is a social idiot with an anxiety disorder, incapable of navigating interpersonal interactions through the use of social cues, empathy and tact, and therefore in need of bright-line rules such as “never” ask people what they do for work because it’s “classist.” (??) Of course, a lot of people who work in journalism are social idiots with anxiety disorders. One writer’s contribution to the list is “never answer a compliment with a compliment” — a rule apparently taken from a time when a famous singer once complimented the writer’s pants, which caused her to “panic” and respond “I like your glasses” which was “horrible”; afterward, she “thought about it for months” and came to realize she should instead have said “thank you.” We — normal people — do not need this person’s etiquette advice.
But the biggest problem with this “new etiquette” is it misunderstands the purpose and nature of etiquette.
Etiquette is for setting other people at ease. If your good etiquette causes people not to find you cringe, that’s just an incidental benefit. New York’s conception of etiquette is selfish: It’s about self-soothing, having rules to follow so that you can stop freaking out about whether you’re doing it wrong, and you will not have to spend months worrying about how you could have been less cringe when someone complimented your pants.
I want to illustrate this error by talking about the one contributor to “the new rules” who actually understood the assignment: fashion entrepreneur Lauren Santo Domingo. It’s not that I think all of Lauren’s etiquette rules are correct — in fact, her assertion that you may not prohibit people from smoking inside your house during a party is kind of deranged — but she does understand that etiquette is an other-directed practice. And many of her rules are great:
“If there is no dress code, tell your guests what you are wearing — and then actually wear it. Don’t say you’re wearing jeans and then wear a gown or vice versa.”
“Always introduce people who are in a conversation or who you think may have something in common. Don’t be offended if they become friends without you.”
“Reply to an invite right away. Busy, productive people respond quickly. Lazy, chaotic people reply late. It’s a fact. I have proof.”
Lauren seems delightful, considerate and fun. I want to go to her parties, even if there is smoking.
But the rest of New York’s list… boy, I don’t know. A lot of it is anti-etiquette, like “you may callously cancel almost any plans up until 2 p.m.,” which is just permission to be rude with a clear conscience. And on COVID, it uses putative etiquette concerns to dress up another agenda. In social contexts, New York takes a libertarian view:
Hosting no-ventilation winter ragers where everyone spits in one another’s mouths? Absolutely fine. In your home, you set the rules.
But in the workplace, we suddenly have obligations to the broader community:
Are you sure your office should be a mask-free space, endangering or excluding older and immunocompromised people? … Are you still sure you should have to work in an office at all? [emphasis in original]
These are self-serving etiquette rules for a specific kind of harried, holier-than-thou liberal media worker living somewhere in the East Village or Bushwick: mouth-spit parties are cool but return-to-office requirements are a danger to society; calling your heterosexual boyfriend or girlfriend your “partner” is cringe unless you do it because you’re “actively resisting the patriarchy”; you can stand up in the aisle immediately after your plane lands because “flying is bad enough already. Do what you can to make things better for yourself”; you should not touch the small of my back in a crowded bar “if you’re ugly” [emphasis again, unfortunately, in original].
There is nothing wrong with being subcultural; in fact, one of the things that’s delightful about New York (my former employer) is that it’s not just another national magazine, but one that comes from the very specific and quirky viewpoint of sceney New Yorkers living within two miles of the East River. The problem is when you assume your subculture is generalizable: That most people are currently figuring out how to crawl out of the COVID holes they’ve been in for three years; that “everyone” has experienced atrophy of their social skills; that it’s normal to be terrified of talking to other people.
When you make that assumption, that’s how you end up writing an etiquette list for assholes.
Speaking of New York and New York, I’ll be back this weekend with another episode of the Very Serious podcast featuring Ross Barkan, a New York-based progressive political journalist, Substacker, and contributor to New York magazine.
We had a very interesting conversation about recent political developments in New York — from Gov. Kathy Hochul’s bold plan to liberalize zoning and build more housing; to Democrats’ deteriorating support among Asian, Hispanic and suburban voters; to how Knicks owner James Dolan keeps getting his way on political matters despite being an ostentatious asshole — and the national implications of these local trends. I think you’ll find the conversation really interesting, even if you don’t live here.
We do realize that some rules on the list — such as “never wake up your significant other on purpose, ever,” — are provocative social media bait not to be taken literally. One of the goals of a piece like New York’s is to draw responses like this one. Still, the level of misplaced sincerity in the piece is high.
It feels like a lot of contemporary culture explicitly condones rude and selfish behavior. It's okay to cancel plans last minute because "muh social anxiety." It's Karen-ish to ask people to refrain from any anti-social behavior in public. A lot of people choose to cut off talking to their parents because they're supposedly narcissists or whatever. It seems like a trend. It's something I've been chewing on a lot lately.
We're due for your "Dear Josh" etiquette podcast.