Etiquette Lost

Composed on the 8th of October in the year 2011, at 2:50 PM. It was Saturday.

I recently picked up a slim volume called “I Like Your Work: A Guide to Etiquette in the Art World.” I’m not sure why I bought it, aside from having a lot of arguments about art and Art with my heterosexual life-mate, and having recently seen Untitled, which is the only good work of art ever to bear the name. As a luddite and a philistine, I figured that at the very least I should look for some insight into a world I know little about.

Instead, I just got annoyed by this passage:

If you’re a skinny artist, be clean and neat. If you’re a fat artist, be crazy looking and disheveled.

No, wait, not that one.1[1] This one:

Don’t cancel at the last minute. Under any circumstances, this is a really annoying thing to do. For an artist, it can screw up their whole day. Bear in mind that it takes time and effort—both physical and emotional—to prepare for a visit, especially if it is high profile.

Seems like good advice, but I read it around the same time I was working on the interface for HelloQuizzy2[2] and I came across a user written test called “Could You Be an Ethical Polyamorist” or something like that. I can’t find the test anymore, but one of the questions was roughly this:

If you were fluid-bonded with your primary partner and you had unprotected sex with someone else, would you tell your primary partner?

This is kind of an amazing question on many levels. The author drops “fluid-bonded” as a supposed in-crowd term—since it’s so fucking hard to guess what it means—with the implication that it’s a kind of ethical agreement more complicated than anything those pesky serial monogamists have to deal with. The rest of the test was in a similar vein, and the whole thing could have been summed up with a single question: “Are you a lying dick3[3] to the people you’re intimate with?” but I guess that wouldn’t have given the author the chance to show off their enlightenment by dropping their pseudo-culture terminology for encoding flexible sexuality.

The fact that my unresolved teenage anger issues had focussed on this test gave me the frame of mind to be annoyed with a formidable swath of the art etiquette book. The bulk of the advice can be summed up with “don’t be a dick.” Don’t be late, don’t be rude, don’t place your immediate convenience over the feelings and efforts of the person you’re interacting with.4[4]

The common thread in the book and the test is that both suggest there’s a nature peculiar to their world that requires its own code of conduct. Before anyone tries to tell me there is, let me just say this: you’re full of shit. If you were in feudal Japan, there would be complex codes of behavior for each situation. But both the test and the book were written in the present day West, where such codification exists only to produce test and books so people like me have something to bitch about.

So why do these things spring up? Why do the art and polyamorous worlds feel the need to produce their own etiquette guides, guides that amount to a child’s versions of the classic guides to etiquette, which actually provided a means of functioning in a (more) dangerous world of political stupidity?

I thought about all the “manners/etiquette/ethics/morality are stupid” conversations of my unusually prolonged college years, and it hit me that, at least in America, there is no common etiquette. Maybe there never has been, anywhere: why else would we need detailed sexual harassment policies? Why is it so hard to be nice, God forbid polite? This is its own topic, and though I won’t broach it here, I’ll mention the specifically American emphasis on individual achievement above and beyond one’s peers demands a self-definition that precludes implicit respect for others’ needs, so I’m comfortable damning my own country without investigating the history of etiquette in the world at large.5[5] I’m also not going to tackle what makes society function, because I don’t need to. The question is how we function on a daily basis with neither a cultural imperative to respect others nor a social code to make others feel they’ve been respected. The answer, oozing between the pages of a thousand pop-psychology magazines, is that we’ve replaced the social code with an emotional economy: If you’ve wronged me, there is no recompense that can be measured to balance the wrong: you must simply feel bad until I’ve taken enough pleasure in your pain to balance the pain you initially caused me. You cut me off, I lay on the horn until you flip me off, signaling I’ve annoyed you. You forget to take out the trash, I forget to take out the trash. Passive aggressive or aggressive aggressive, some debt must be paid. Meanwhile, if I something nice for you, you’re now obligated in doing something nice for me, to balance things out.

The problem is emotional economies don’t work. Emotions can’t be valued or bought, as anyone’s who’s ever been in a bad relationship can attest. If I wrong you, I probably have some self-validated emotional context for whatever I did, and your demand for me to feel bad, valid as you feel it may be, attacks my sense of self, so even if you’re “right,” and even if you’re right by my standards, the fact of your demand challenges my means of self-justification, which then goes into overdrive and will probably lash out and do something passive aggressive.6[6] Even putting that aside, every individual’s feelings of pain are looking for an explanation or recompense, and if someone asks one of those individuals to feel worse to sate the asker’s emotional imbalance, the individual’s needs are going to target the cause of this new unpleasantness. More classically, violence begets violence.

Every transaction in an emotional economy makes things worse for everybody.

An economic model presumes a commodity or currency that has value to more than one person, while emotions only have value to the person feeling them. The only mode of transference is empathy, which is automatic, non-optional, and doesn’t remove the original emotion. Emotions cannot be demanded or traded: they can only be felt. Demanding a painful emotion in another person will probably cause you pain once you get it, because of empathy, and it will create a debt in their emotional world that someone is going to have to pay, creating a new and equally pointless transaction.

My social upbringing was riddled with social cues to feel bad and make other people feel bad. I’m happy to say I always thought it was stupid, and unhappy to say I did it anyway, and probably still do when I’m not paying the amount of attention it takes to avoid it.

I can’t say a rigid code of etiquette is a better thing, though it’s not worse when it matches its time. What most people realize is that a common etiquette dates itself in a generation, if it even takes that long. No social code can keep up with the times, as it’s extracting an emotional tax on every person that didn’t write it, and we’re right back at an emotional economy.

However natural these draining emotional transactions are, they can’t be left alone in a society, because a society is an agreement. Law, force, and momentum hold up most of this agreement, while the rest of it, namely the part we have to deal with every day, depends on individuals dealing with each other. With the outright abandonment of a common cultural etiquette, the mini-cultures that create forced intimacy, and hence make the emotional trading floor exponentially more bearish, invent infantile codes of conduct to fill the void and channel the dickishness of people who decide they’re above it all once they identify with a subset of society. The rest invest in personal and family standards of ethical behavior that are generally written and rewritten on the fly. The codes and standards rise an fall depending on the people who think they know what’s better for other people; some of them say they’re trying to build something, others say they want to tear it all down, and all of them are jerks who draw power from people who are scared and confused about why everyone’s such a dick all the time.

My personal code started with the Quaker golden rule, or “do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” which I still think is a pretty good loose guide.7[7] The simple conduct that I see shared by all the decent8[8] people I know is roughly as follows:

First, don’t be a dick. This is really simple. Most of the time, you know when you’re being a dick. Stop it.

Next, don’t respond when other people are being dicks. This is a little harder. There are a lot of gas tanks begging for some sugar. But if you respond, you’re in one of two situations: the person is intentionally being a dick, and they’ll just be more of a dick because they wanted you to get upset and it pleases them, so you’re just losing at their game. The other possibility is that the person isn’t being a dick intentionally, they’re just absentminded, self-involved, tired, or distracted. If they’re absentminded, gently nag them. If they’re self-involved, avoid them.9[9] The tired and distracted aren’t being dicks at all, they just did something by accident that happened to piss you off. In this case, if you respond to them with an appropriately counter-annoyance, you’re the dick. In fact, in all these cases, responding achieves nothing and will not ultimately make you feel better. I’m all about savoring a little hate; it can be motivating. But acting on it cannot make anything better for me. Assume that if somebody does something annoying, they may not have meant to, and if they did, pretend they didn’t and stop hanging around them.

Next, accept nice things and actions when offered, and don’t feel indebted. Encourage others to not feel indebted to you when you do them. This is probably even harder than the above, because people have an innate sense of pseudo-karma.10[10] People want to feel they’ll get nice things back if they do nice things. This isn’t true, and it’s stupid; people feel that way when the next bad thing happens to them, and feeling this way just undoes all the benefit they got from doing the nice thing in the first place. You do nice things because they make you feel good; if they don’t, you’re not actually doing a nice thing, you’re just paying off a debt or looking for future favors. When you do the nice thing, make sure the people you do it for don’t genuinely feel like they owe you, and don’t feel like you owe the people who do nice things for you. Basically, the positive model of the emotional economy doesn’t work either, so don’t build one.

Finally, keep an eye out for what the people within ten feet of you might need. This is as much for you as for them, and important when getting coffee or commuting. Your awareness of these needs will make your life easier, since you can avoid annoying situations and grease all your interactions for a more efficient, fewer-cluster-headache life. If you don’t think the people within ten feet of you matter, consider that they may be in deep emotional debt, and armed.

1 That passage is just a stunningly un-self-aware commentary on modern preconceptions of genius and hygiene.

2 OkCupid spun off their user test system into this new site. Might still be up; I haven’t been in a while.

3 Or cunt. I was going to write dick/cunt every time I brought it up, but though I think the feel and proper use of the word cunt is a good counterpart for the word dick, cunt still seems to have a disproportionate impact. Also, “dick/cunt” just doesn’t have the same punchiness that “dick” achieves alone, so at the risk of offending my female readers, I’m going to misogynistically use only the male pronoun. Just try to think “cunt” where appropriate.

4 If you feel your immediate convenience constitutes your feelings and efforts, and should be recognized and complained about, you’re a dick.

5 Note how this also saves me a few days work.

6 Because I’m a little dude. If I was a big dude, I’d just beat my kids or something.

7 Though, being straight, this is difficult for me to apply in the bedroom.

8 By my standard of decent; don’t think for a second I’m not a jerk who thinks he knows better than you.

9 I have multiple friends who are known for being four hours late or canceling things at the minute. When the actually show up, they’re perfectly charming and charismatic, but they’re so unaware of other people’s feelings and so painfully narcissistic, it’s not worth the effort to maintain contact. I just run into these people by accident occasionally, and it’s pleasant, and I pretend to listen to them make plans with me, but I know the next time I see them, it will also be by accident.

10 Karma Classic only pays out in the next life.

Suicide is painless.

Hi there! You should totally go buy my book for the low low price of 6.66! It's like buying me a beer at an out-of-the-way dive bar in Brooklyn! Not in Manhattan. Manhattan prices are ridiculous, though there are a couple of decent Irish dives where you can snag a drink for five bucks. Otherwise, you're looking at a two or three book beer.
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