Emily Post, pretense, and McMansions

A look at Emily Post’s etiquette connects her advice then and McMansions today:

Many of her admonitions are still relevant today. Thank-you notes were a sign of good character, Post argued. She also recommended ignoring “elephants at large in the garden,” otherwise known as wealthy know-it-alls: “Why a man, because he has millions, should assume they confer omniscience in all branches of knowledge, it something which may be left to the psychologist to answer.”

Above all, however, one must avoid pretense! Hence her indictment of the tastelessness of what today might be called a “McMansion”: “But the ‘mansion’ with coarse lace… and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill-fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: ‘Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation.’”

These two passages cited above suggest that those with wealth and resources should not flaunt their advantages by either acting like they know everything or having possessions that indicate status but not refinement. Hence, a McMansion might be an issue because the owner is purchasing a relatively expensive and large house and making a statement with its architecture and design. Instead of a more understated or traditional looking or older wealthy home, the McMansion is often said to be a plea for attention by those with new money to burn.

At the same time, this hints at some broader issues Americans have with wealth and dwellings. Is it more acceptable to have a more subtle but truly grand big home as opposed to garish McMansion? Both dwellings might contribute to inequality. Both could discourage social interaction. Both are larger than the average home and arguably waste a lot of space. Both show that the homeowners have money.

In American society, there have long been certain ways wealthy people should try to downplay their wealth. Because has more democratic and meritocratic ideals than some places, having certain possessions – the ultimate or unusual luxury goods – are truly markers of having a lot more than others. McMansions are not these luxury goods; they are too common and are within the reach of relatively more Americans. The big mansions of Hollywood, in the wealthiest suburbs and urban neighborhoods, and home to the 1% are the ultimate mansions and indicators of wealth.

Paris’ transit authority has new campaign asking local residents to be less rude

The transit authority in Paris has a new campaign aimed at getting users to show more etiquette:

Likening Parisians to animals, it shows a variety of them horrifying onlookers with their selfish behaviour.

A hen is shown screaming into a mobile phone while sitting on a packed bus, a buffalo shoves his way on to a commuter train, and other shameless beasts are shown annoying people…

Sociologist Julien Damon, who helped carry out the RATP survey, said: ‘These types of bad behaviour have always existed, but what has changed is that we are less prepared to tolerate them.

‘Our behaviour is more and more geared towards cleanliness and hygiene, like spitting on the ground or smoking in a restaurant now both very frowned upon, and less about common courtesies like simply being polite and nice to each other.’…

The study comes two years after a separate survey of foreigners visiting Paris voted them the rudest people in Europe...

Cecile Ernst, French author of the sociological and etiquette essay ‘Bonjour Madame, Merci Monsieur’ argues that the shockingly loutish behaviour of France’s football team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when the players went on strike, was a symptom of a broader social trend.

Two quick thoughts:

1. This seems to be motivated in part by perceptions of tourists. Since Paris is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, this is no small matter.

2. I wonder how successful this campaign will be as it utilizes shame and guilt. The posters shown here basically suggest that some current riders are acting like animals. Could a more positive campaign be more effective or would it not attract people’s attention effectively? Imagine if ads like these went up in a major US city…

Why don’t we collect data to see whether we have become more rude or uncivil rather than rely on anecdotes?

NPR ran a story the other day about how American culture is becoming more casual and less polite. This is not an uncommon story: every so often, different news organizations will run something similar, often focusing on the decreasing use of manners like saying “please” and “you’re welcome.” Here is the main problem I have with these articles: what kind of data could we look at to evaluate this argument? These stories tend to rely on experts who provide anecdotal evidence or their own interpretation. In this piece, these are the three experts: “a psychiatrist and blogger,” “a sophomore at the College of Charleston — in the South Carolina city that is often cited as one of the most courteous in the country,” and “etiquette maven Cindy Post Senning, a director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt.”

There is one data point cited in this story:

Research backs up Smith’s anecdotal observations. In 2011, some 76 percent of people surveyed by Rasmussen Reports said Americans are becoming more rude and less civil.

Interestingly, this statistic is about perceptions. Perceptions may be more important than reality in many social situations. But I could imagine another scenario about these perceptions: older generations tend to think that younger generations (often their children and grandchildren?) are less mannered and don’t care as much about social etiquette. As this story suggests, perhaps the manners are simply changing – instead of saying “you’re welcome,” younger people give the dreaded “sure.”

There has to be some way to measure this. It would be nice to do this online or in social media but the problem is that face-to-face rules don’t apply there. Perhaps someone has recorded interactions at McDonald’s or Walmart registers? In whatever setting a researcher chooses, you would want to observe a broad range of people to look for patterns by age, occupation, gender, race, education level (though some of this would have to come through survey or interview data with the people being observed).

In my call for data, I am not disagreeing with the idea that traditional manners and civility have decreased. I just want to see data that suggests this rather than anecdotes and observations from a few people.

Using “amateur sociology” to have better Christmas conversations

One columnist has some tips in “amateur sociology” in how to deal with all the conversations you might encounter during the Christmas season:

Tis the season for amateur sociology – if we want to share space with one another happily, that is. With parties and family get-togethers, tension and social gaffes lurk behind every pine swag. And so in honour of the holiday spirit – and the need to enjoy each other’s company, even if you have to pretend – I offer some observations about the art of conversation…

That’s the thing about pleasant conversation. It’s a dance of fancy footwork, a minefield of social explosive devices to be avoided, the exact opposite of what the popular culture of confession and narcissistic Facebook commentary suggests is important. A good conversationalist has a feel for nuance; an understanding of grace; an ability to make careful entrees and gentle exits. He is not obsessed with his own status updates. And he’s adept at skilled deflections.

To make for happy party dynamics, you must demure at times, remain silent when necessary, nod, listen, dare to be conventional and find refuse in a discussion about the weather.

Rarely do you need to say exactly how you feel, especially if it’s about Aunt Shirley’s disgraceful behaviour at the last family get-together.

In recent years, I’ve read various people suggesting that the art of good conversation is slowly dying, particularly among younger generations. Common targets for this include Facebook (like above), rougher political discourse, and a growing sense of incivility.

But, it seems to me that if you want people to be good at conversation, they have to be taught and they have to practice. This is true of any social norm or practice. This doesn’t necessarily mean going to finishing school or things like that but there should be commonly-found settings where good conversation can be found. Reading a tips column like this doesn’t help too much because it can’t prepare one for all the twists and turns a human-to-human conversation might take. Perhaps reading more Erving Goffman and other notable symbolic interactionists could help. Or perhaps keeping Mead’s “generalized other” in mind would help.

So who wants to take up this task?