There’s no getting around it: Quarantine is making us weird. Humans did not evolve as social animals for thousands of years to sit alone in their houses, communicating solely by typing and talking through a series of small digital boxes.
After almost a year of Covid lockdown, I’ve completely lost the ability to make small talk. I wasn’t great at it before, but at least I was able to say hi and exchange pleasantries at daycare drop off. Now when I see someone I know in person—not even friends! Just acquaintances!—I simply stare at them while my eyes slowly well up with tears. You'd think Zoom and email and Twitter and TikTok might offer some solace to the contact-starved, but after 11 long months it's getting more difficult to mediate those interactions as well. Alone in our dwellings, we are pure id. We howl back and forth into the social media black hole while we boil yet another pot of ramen for dinner.
"You should recognize when it feels like a ‘witching hour,’ aka everyone is ready to be mad about everything," says Anne Helen Petersen, author of Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, over email. "When it feels like everyone in your feed is using social media as a funnel for emotions that don't have anywhere else to go—which is happening a lot right now—that's when you close your laptop or close the app."
If you too are struggling with how to connect with people in a healthier way, I have a resource that I will now share with all of you. When I’m lying in bed, mentally berating myself for being unutterably awkward yet again, I reread my favorite highlighted pages from that stalwart 19th-century companion, Arthur Martine’s Handbook to Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness.
Rules of the Road
Etiquette manuals have a bad reputation, particularly since many of the more famous ones available on Amazon and Project Gutenberg date back to the 1860s. They seem as useless, outdated, rigid, and confining as the corsets and gloves that were de rigueur apparel at the time.
Americans, particularly, seem unimpressed with rigid social codes. Unlike, say, in the hit Netflix drama Bridgerton, which is set in Regency-era London, the consequences for committing social errors in the US in 2021 seems low. Nowadays, your parents don't force you into marriage if you're unchaperoned with a dude in the garden. We don't even have chaperones.
Etiquette has also long been used as a tool to enforce gender-based and racial hierarchies. You don’t have to admit to being racist if you can say you don't like someone for being loud or aggressive. You don't have to admit to being sexist if you can just say you didn't hire a woman because she wore inappropriate clothing.
But even as we commenced tearing down the social norms that worked against us, we forgot that we do need at least a few guardrails. Nowhere is this more clear than on the internet, where tempers flare high, reading comprehension is low, and an experiment with an air fryer and a hot dog can turn into fiery discourse that lasts days.
We're all supposed to know intuitively how to navigate this space, especially those of us who grew up peeking into chatrooms and messaging on AIM. But it's hard to remember basic social rules, especially now that you can't close the app, walk to the bar, and have a friend tell you, "That is nuts. Do not engage." This is why you may need someone as wise as Emily Post, who will gently prod you to remember "instinctive consideration for the feelings of others.” Manners aren't about learning what fork to use. You learn manners because you're surrounded by people, even when you're alone, and you need to care about how other people feel.
How to Behave
I've been obsessed with etiquette manuals ever since my parents enrolled me in a cotillion class in middle school. If you skip all the parts about how the carriage is the most elegant form of transportation and how to greet someone at the opera, many etiquette manuals remain surprisingly relevant today. My favorite is Arthur Martine’s, because his prescriptions are much more general, and the book hasn’t lost any of its sharpness or humor in the almost 200 years since it was written.
An annotated list of Martine's guidelines for conversation should be posted at the top of every social platform before you log in. “We can always be ordinarily civil, even if we cannot always be absolutely wise,” he sensibly states at the start. In today's terms, we can take that to mean the internet is big, and you are probably not the smartest person on it. Being kind is easier (and pays more dividends) than trying to dazzle a bunch of unimpressed strangers with your wit.
Here's more of Martine's wisdom:
In mixed company, be readier to hear than speak. There are a lot of people on the internet, of all different shapes, colors, sexual orientations, genders, jobs, backgrounds, and ages. Assuming that your experiences are universal could backfire on you.
Never argue with anyone but men of sense. You can happily ignore, block, or mute any bad-faith arguments, arguments without evidence, and everyone who demands that you respond to their claims that you are dumb, unloved, and ugly.
If you give a jest, you should be able to take one. Obviously.
If you are nettled or stung, take care to never show it or else it provokes more. As he memorably puts it, the best way to not be hit by arrows is to not turn yourself into a target. This is the conventional rule of how to deal with internet trolls. How did they troll people before there was an internet? Parchment? Semaphore? Telegrams?
I also find his descriptions of people to avoid to be startlingly accurate today. For example, I instantly recognized a 19th-century version of the Reply Guy in his description of the clever bore: “If you say, ‘Hang the weather!’ before such a man, he immediately proves, by logical demonstrations, that the weather has no neck by which it can be suspended."
Rules of the Road
Every time I fear that I have kiboshed yet another of my few remaining friendships with irredeemable pandemic awkwardness, I open Martine. He is a constant, soothing reminder of what really matters—that people will always respond if you care more about them than what they think of you, and that saying something genuine is always preferable to saying something overly clever, planned, or strained.
We used to know these things, but we're slowly forgetting them. Maybe that's why historical shows like Bridgerton have gotten so popular. Rules can be confining, but they’re also the things that keep you from falling off the tracks—which way too many of us are in danger of doing.
With the advent of effective vaccines, I’m hoping to do more in-person interaction soon. But in the meantime, if I am to pick some social norms to adhere to in quarantine, being kind is probably a more productive one than switching back to regular pants.
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