Empirical manners: towards a science of harmonious norms

"Rewilding Etiquette," Karl Schroeder's guest-post on Charlie Stross's blog, looks at a future where social contracts, not social control, are used to keep things running. As Larry Lessig wrote, the three forms of governance are law, technological constraint, and norms, and while activists and science fiction writers focus on the first two, the third is the most important (the reason your neighbors don't break into your house has more to do with being "good" than fear of arrest or difficulty defeating your locks).

Manners--etiquette--are little studied these days, which is ironic considering that arguably, we need them more than ever. After all, at no other time in history (except maybe during the hegemony of Rome) have so many diverse people being jostling elbows the way they are now. These days, any big city has people from every corner of the world living in it; in my city of Toronto, more than 50% of the inhabitants are from somewhere else. (And it works magnificently; we have 1/10th the murder rate of any comparably-sized American city.) We need to get along with one another, and good manners are an essential tool.

So, what if we didn't shave everybody's head, stamp a number on it and put them through brainwashing classes; or breed them for docility; or drug the water supply. What if, instead, we started a new movement in manners, one directed at conflict resolution, collective problem solving, and the cohabitation of diverse kinds of people? And simply presented it as a movement, like open source software, not run by a social engineering elite but by anybody who's willing to use the publically available code: i.e., the peer-reviewed, experimentally verified, incomplete but emerging cognitive sciences?

Rewilding Etiquette

(Image: Tokyo subway rules of etiquette, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from juicycactus's photostream)

Start the discussion at bbs.boingboing.net


      1. If IRMO is talking Connie Willis and “comedy of manners”, they’re probably referring to “To Say Nothing of the Dog.”  Hard to go wrong with Connie Willis though.

  1. Reading the blurb, the critical theorist side of my brain tells me I should ask a question. To wit: Whose etiquette? By sourcing the ‘code’ in cognitive science you’ve just moved the question up a step from the particular argument about etiquette to one of theory-ladeness in cognitive science.

  2. I can agree I feel like a stronger sense of civility would be nice… however at the same time I have a really big problem with people telling me what to do.

  3. > Whose etiquette?

    Is etiquette something you can design by wiki? :-)

    The real issue of this, of course, is that while it’s relatively easy for people who want to get along well with others to learn the local etiquette rules (e.g. in this country we don’t spit on the ground in public) – the major questions are what the responses are to transgressors…?

    1. You’d be surprised how responsive people are to the threat of having their peers look at them funny.
      But if that doesn’t work, society kind of works it out dynamically.  Think of existing norms…how are they enforced?  There’s no manners police – or rather we are all the manners police.

      If we bake good values into our culture, then there’s no need to create clumsy authority structures to enforce them, because the responsibility for enforcement is distributed to everyone.  Conversely, if we marginalize bad values in our culture, people tend to do those bad things less, simply because they’re not within the frame of reasonable possibilities.

      p.s. if this makes sense to you, i regret to inform you that you may be an anarchist.  Please report to the nearest police station and turn yourself in.

  4. “in my city of Toronto, more than 50% of the inhabitants are from
    somewhere else. (And it works magnificently; we have 1/10th the murder
    rate of any comparably-sized American city.)”

    Gonna have to see a citation on that assumption of causality.

    1. Gonna have to agree with you there.  He claims the mix of residents is the reason for the lower murder rate while ignoring the possibility that the more murdery American cities might have just the same mix of residents.

    2. The murder rate in Toronto is not 1/10th of any comparably-sized American city.  Boston is comparably sized, and has triple the murder rate.  San Jose is smaller, but has a lower murder rate.  New York City’s murder rate is twice Toronto’s.

      Perhaps by “any comparably-sized American city” means Detroit?  It has about 10x the murder rate of Toronto.

    3. I was about to ask for a citation too. Toronto has a very low murder rate, true, but there are American cities that have low rates as well. It’s not always Gotham City.

    1. This doesn’t work in asymmetric situations. For example, I’m a guy. I’m generally pretty happy to have a woman come up to me and ask for a quick roll in the hay. Even if I’m not attracted to them, I’m flattered. However, just because I would like to be treated that way doesn’t mean that I should go up to every beautiful woman I know and proposition them. For a variety of reasons, from biological to social to economic, that would be inappropriate.

      Symmetric interactions are easy. Asymmetric ones are difficult because they require a much higher level of empathy.

      1. I think I take your point, but in your example it’s really not that the interaction is asymmetric so much as that the cultural norms for expressing “hey, wanna fuck?” are typically gender and sexual-orientation dependent. Women seem to generally be flattered by such things too, it’s just a matter of expressing it in an acceptable manner. It’s not rude to ask, but it is easier to ask a woman rudely. I imagine it’s somewhat similar to a gay man asking a straight man. Most straight guys are easily offended by this, whereas an equally unattractive woman wouldn’t provoke the same level of offense, and yet it is entirely possible for a gay man to ask a straight man for sex in a “polite” manner that makes the straight man feel flattered.

      2. Symmetric interactions are easy.

        It’s not really any different. Not all gay men, for example, are all that thrilled about having our crotches stared at by other gay men.

      3. @Jon Flynn: I think you must be misinterpreting something.  Just because society is asymmetric doesn’t mean your conversation has to be. The problem is when asymmetry is abused to pressure someone. Respectfully propositioning a girl isn’t a problem, right?

        1. Respectfully propositioning a girl isn’t a problem, right?

          It depends on how long you’ve been dating. Walking up to a stranger and asking for sex is not respectful.

          1. I meant in the same spirit as Jon’s comment, “I’m generally pretty happy to have a woman come up to me and ask for a quick roll in the hay.” In our society, you don’t think the reverse situation could work the same way?

        2. Well, that’s kinda the issue, right? What is respectfully propositioning a girl? I have an intuition that it isn’t the same as respectfully propositioning a guys (this may not be universally, but it seems others agree with me here). I’m not saying it can’t be done, and certainly is very situationally based. What would be appropriate at a single’s bar is not appropriate most other places. 

           @boingboing-f3d5883b9788dccb86dbc6f7ab6da481:disqus I would consider those cultural values to be part of the asymmetry, as well as the desires of the person you are talking too. The reason why the golden rule fails is that people don’t want the same things. It takes a good deal of empathy to figure out what the other person wants – figuring out when to respect that and when not to (and there are times not to) is a skill that takes a lifetime of practice to do well. Because of cultural norms, as well as sexual economics (in general, and I can’t emphasize that statement enough, women are less interested in casual sex), you have to figure out how to state your desire without causing offense to a person who may not share it. Sometimes that can’t be done, and you ought to keep it to yourself. I think that similar thing apply to your example of a gay man hitting on a possibly straight man.

          @Antinous_Moderator:disqus That’s a really good point, and a tough issue. Is there a baseline of behavior that is expected? How would we establish that? If we go with my model of trying to anticipate the desires of another person, then occasionally we will get it wrong and possibly offend. Hopefully there is etiquette on dealing with this as well – letting people know that they have offended. The whole issue is incredibly complicated, so I don’t know how to really answer that.

    2. Is it?  People who are used to small personal spaces will usually not care that somebody else will only a foot away – but they still will create stress and may even trigger aggression,  if the other doesn’t care for that much closeness.

      People who chew with a open mouth or who smoke during lunch also usually are not annoyed by the behavior.

  5. I’d be OK with an an increase in Toronto’s murder rate if we were allowed to murder all the rude people. And yes, subway door blockers, I’m looking at YOU. 

  6. To be on the extra polite side, use the Golden Mean Rule. Be 1.618 times nicer than you think is necessary.

    Just a bit of an aside here – weren’t the Harmonious Norms the warm-up act for the Newport Syncopaters?

    1. Even that could backfire slightly. 

      Germans and Anglos have different levels of politeness – what’s perfectly normal for Americans can get  close to perceived mockery for Germans.

  7. I didn’t read that as an assertion of causality, but a reflection that despite the city being filled with people from diverse nations, with  (presumably) different ideas of what constitutes “good public manners” Toronto has a fairly low crime/murder rate.

    Also for an examination of crime stats and immigration, there was an interesting article in June 2011 edition of The Walrus.


  8. Makes me think of the “Vickies” (Neo-Victorians) from Stephenson’s “Diamond Age”, who are basically steampunks who are in it not just for the aesthetic, but for the moral value. Primarily for the latter, in fact.

    Is that a feature of the current steampunk scene? Not having played much in that space, it seems from the outside that it’s mostly about fashion.

  9. When I lived in Tokyo, the street crime was negligible and everyone was as polite as the stereotypes you’ve heard. It’s also more diverse than you think. However, security is tight, tight, tight. Some have argued that it’s almost a police state. Rules are very non-negotiable there. The social contract is just what one does- the social rules are The Law. I’ve also been to cities like Atlanta where they are far more polite than even the sweetest of Canadians, and that doesn’t seem to slow down crime at all. 

  10. The comment thread on the original post is awesome.  Schroeder disagrees with commenters who suggest that a state focused on etiquette would be like Singapore where repercussions for infractions are swift and severe. He claims reward is more powerful than punishment. Then he proceeds to ban commenters who bring up topics he doesn’t like. Hey look – punishment is pretty effective when it’s your only tool, isn’t it.

  11. I generally agree with the larger concepts presented here, but considering how many folks are comparing Western (ie: United States) norms to other countries, what about differences within borders? Such as the difference between a New Yorker and the “Minnesota nice” mentality that pervades the upper midwest? As someone who was born in NYC and moved to the midwest for a bit, I found the welcoming nature of the midwest to be fine for a while. And after a few years I completely started to become stifled by the passive-aggresiveness and came back to NYC.

    The net result of this is I am now 100% not tolerant of nonsense from midwesterners in a way I never felt before.  And I am sure midwesterners have no clue why New Yorkers behave the way we do.

    1. It only seems like nonsense. To us midwesterners, it’s setting aside personal prefrences for group consensus and social harmony. A guy I  know from Appleton, WI said that our ancestors had to cooperate here, because if we didn’t, the winters would kill us.

      I visited New York about 12 years ago and really liked it. Brooklyn reminded me of my neighborhood in Rogers Park. A few people seemed a little brusque by my standards. I thought that this might have been because New York was more intense than Chicago, where I was from at the time.

      1. I grew up in NYC, in a tenement, child of factory workers in fairly clear poverty. And despite the fact that I was surrounded by all kinds of crap, I really barely had to call the cops once or witnessed anything that would require police intervention. At the time I moved to the midwest (Wisconsin specifically) I was 27 and had lived in NYC my whole life.

        In contrast in the 5 years I spent in the midwest, I had to call the cops for various sundry things at least 5-6 times.  And as time progressed I found out a few friends were party to domestic violence I was never aware of and other illegal activities that included deep physical violence.

        Now I am not saying such activities did not exist in NYC.  But in my experience neighbors would often call out the bad eggs right away.  I witnessed my superintendent kick out junkies and other assholes without calling the cops.

        The difference from my perspective is that in NYC that everyone clearly knows what is happening and many times small social groups will act to solve the problems before they got out of hand. From my experience in Wisconsin, everyone knows what is happening as well but few people stand up to do anything and if anyone does they are shunned; I witnessed tons of “blame the victim” nonsense when I was there.

        So I don’t claim to understand where that mentality comes from. But it seems to me to be 100% bullshit, anti-Social on a larger societal level and causes more damage in the long run.

        And in the context of this post about societal norms, there clearly are societal norms that are in conflict within the borders of the U.S. that still persist despite decades of evidence of the damage it does in the long run.

        And since it seems like I have taken a dump on the upper midwest, let me turn back to NYC.  The neighborhood I grew up in was very NYC working class/lower class when I was growing up.  Nowadays it’s mainly filled with recently off the boat Eastern Europeans who grew up in communist and post-comunist countries.  And guess what?  They seem to have the same problem of passive-aggresiveness that I mentioned the upper-midwest has.  Violence and abuse happens but nobody says anything because they have a fear of authority and don’t believe the system works for them.  Thus a new passive-aggresive culture takes root where “Americans” who do “crazy” things like call the cops when they are in trouble exists.

        Ultimately the problem with the concept of societal norms is there are just too many shades of gray and too many differences between culture.  And in the worst case it really always comes down to perceived “white” culture forcing it’s will on “others.”  The longer cultural logic holds no water because we live in 2011.  But simply telling people to “behave” will not fly with anyone anywhere. It’s too complex.

        1. After reading your second post, I think that the passive/aggressiveness in the midwest has less to do with cooperation and more with conformity or not wanting to make waves. There were a large number of Scandinavians who settled the midwest and Jante Law http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jante_law seems to have taken hold here to some extent. By that I mean maybe people aren’t going to stand up because everyone has some dirt on somebody else. And you’re right, that’s a lousy to go about things.

          1. I’m in Minnesota and my husband and I call this the “Tallest Poppy Syndrome”, which is something we heard the Flight of the Concordes guys talk about. They said that in New Zealand you are not encouraged to stand out, that “the tallest poppy gets cut down”. It’s definitely something we see in MN sometimes where other people’s successes are seen negatively.

            I’m from the South which can also be passive-aggressive (where people are nice to your face but talk bad about you behind your back). For me the biggest thing to get used to is how reserved everyone is. It’s like everyone sees strangers as suspicious characters. Where I’m from we have the phrase “I never met a stranger” because you can’t stand in a line without someone talking to you. Most Minnesotans really are nice though and more passive than passive-aggressive, but you get all kinds.

          2. Another comment I’ve heard about “Minnesota Nice” that I like was that people here tend to “stuff it and seethe”. I see that all the time. Because of the passivity, people get frustrated but just “stuff it and seethe” rather than address it. Drives me bananas because I’m very direct. I can tell I put people off all the time by dealing with issues head on…rather than not all.

  12. Hello-ooo, norms as a means of social control? Try Foucault…….dumb science fiction writers, ideas are for philosophers ;). Seriously though, you’d think decades after Ursula Leguin science fiction would have wised up to the potential in those disciplines (scientific and otherwise) whose focus is on the human self, alone or in groups.

  13. A relatively secular (or at least non-denominational) and generally agreed upon etiquette training is already a part of American society (and I am assuming Canadian and other Western cultures, at least the anglophones). Preschool! Much of early child-rearing and schooling is teaching kids how to get along with each other and basic rules to live within a civil society (i.e. don’t take what isn’t yours, sharing stuff is better, compromise before conflict, don’t do stuff to other people that you wouldn’t like and respect that what they want may be different than you, etc.).

    I suppose that access to parenting classes (which can be it’s own can of worms) might also help, or at least an economic setup that would help support parents with more time and help to raise their kids and aid them in learning skills to get along in a diverse society. If we get to them early, social problems tend to be cheaper to solve than they are down the road.

    (Grain of Salt: I have no data or studies to quote that support my views or specific efficacy or content of preschool. They are entirely my opinion, based on my own narrow, non-empirical observations and those of my family who are public school teachers).

  14. The problem is that the folks who are “ill-mannered”, uncivil (i.e. assholes)  are not the kind who invest much concern with manners except as a way to exploit people who do have such concerns. It’s a little like expecting the “market” to trump monopolists. 

    Sadly, what is required is a massive reset from the culture of greed which has taken root to the point of being cultural kudzu. Resets, sadly happen when so much of the wealth is taken out of circulation by the richest, that a “great” depression becomes inevitable. Think Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” applied to the wealth of a nation. The other resets of course are the Malthusian standards of war, famine and disease, and over population is pushing us closer to those. Granted past extensions of the inevitability horizon of those have come largely on the back of increased use of fossil fuels for fertilizers, over fishing, and exotic, high carbon footprint technologies like the one I’m using to type this.

    But those are all forms of kicking the can down the road, and eventually our kids are going to have to pay for that. Wait, with 20% to 30% unemployment  

    1. I have to ask, what makes it inevitable? Difficult to avoid, yes, absolutely. But inevitable?
      Enough sunlight reaches the Earth that if we used it all, we could support hundreds of times our current population better than the way Americans live now. We could grow food in vertical farms, and desalinate ocean water. These methods are expensive but getting gradually cheaper, while our ability to pay for them increases.

      And when we reach that limit, who says we have to stay here? There’s plenty more energy and water and minerals and everything else out there in the solar system.

      And a few thousand years from now after we’ve colonized space/terraformed nearby planets, what’s to stop us from sending out generational ships (or FTL ones if that turns out to be possible) to nearby stars?

      As far as we know, the universe is of infinite spatial extent., Finite age most likely, but no one has ever identified a spatial boundary. In fact we know the universe must be larger than our Hubble volume, because we have failed to find any evidence that light has had time to traverse the whole thing since the Big Bang. So where is the limit of expansion?
      And if you’re worried about heat death and the like, you can take refuge in ideas like the Omega Point or Dyson’s Eternal Intelligence that say you can do an infinite amount of feeling, thinking, and living (infinite subjective time) with a finite amount of resources and “real” time.

      You have to keep moving to stay on the road, but failure is hardly inevitable.

  15. During a trip to Tokyo in 2009 I spotted one of these “Please do it at home.” signs on the subway. It showed a woman applying make-up while sitting in a subway car.

  16. I’ve noticed that many posters in this thread appear to be consciously more polite.

    Maybe we should always use this thread for every discussion on boing boing for now on.  It’ll be the secret polite area away from the fray.

  17. Miss Manners has long said that etiquette is results-oriented. You don’t write a thank you note because it’s morally correct; you do it so that you get another gift next year. Manners exist to keep people from tearing each other apart.

    1. Miss Manners has long said that etiquette is results-oriented. You don’t write a thank you note because it’s morally correct; you do it so that you get another gift next year.

      I can’t say I approve of Miss Manners, then.  We’re having a tough time explaining to our four-year-old why we value and expect good manners.  The easy explanation for her would be the goal-oriented one, but that kind of opportunism and calculation is not a value we want to instill in our kids.  Nobody loves Eddie Haskell, after all.  Sooner or later, I hope my kids get old enough and sophisticated enough to embrace John Custer’s line: “You gotta be one of the good guys, son, ’cause there’s way too many of the bad.”

      I suppose that it’ll end up being a two-tiered lesson, one that acknowledges the obvious material and reciprocal benefits of etiquette, but also one that includes a desire to do “the right thing” without the expectation of any reward or even acknowledgement.

      That’ll take some doing, no doubt… especially in the absence of a religion.

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