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 They seem as useless, outdated, rigid, and confining as the corsets and gloves that were de rigueur apparel at the time.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.