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[People conducting themselves appropriately (I hope) in Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884)]

People like lists, so here is a list. It’s my comprehensive list of how you should and shouldn’t be behaving in public. It was originally published in 2013 in New English Review, here, as part of a longer article in New English Review discussing Ford Madox Ford’s masterpiece, Parade’s End. But people — the same people who like lists — don’t like literature (for those few who do, I recommend reading the original article). So, below, I’ve cut right to the chase, my proposed code of public conduct in a society that is increasingly pushing every boundary of what it means to behave appropriately.

You will likely notice that the code seems, in multiple respects, somewhat more conservative than our present social practices. That is the whole point, after all. When people’s public behavior has gotten liberalized beyond all bounds so that it is rude, vulgar, uncivil and uncivilized, the goal is to change that, which, on many counts, involves attempting to turn back the clock in order to arrest the degeneration of our public sphere. But one need not necessarily see the results as reactionary. It is aspirational, an effort to inculcate a new tradition in a society liberated from the sometimes oppressive barriers and prejudices that came along with our old social classes, a new tradition in which everyone is invited — indeed, requested and expected — to participate on equal terms, in which only those who fail to abide by the rules will be held in low regard. So, without further ado, here we go.  Enjoy:

These are rules and standards for how you and everyone else might be expected to behave in public.  In reality, most of these rules are quite intuitive and can be reduced to this general principle (which is, in itself, already a quasi-redundant expression of what may be further reduced to this simple maxim: respect the existence of others in your midst): do not assault any of the five senses, do not make an undue spectacle of yourself, carry yourself with dignity and refinement, be considerate, be polite, be helpful and be mindful. The rest of these rules are really no more than applications and amplifications of this one.

  1. Shouting is useful when you need to call for help. Otherwise, speak at a volume no louder than necessary to communicate. Your conversation might be interesting, but someone else may, rightly or wrongly, not be interested.
  2. Your music is your music. It is not necessarily beloved by all. Keep it (and videos and video games) at a volume such that it is no more than barely audible (or, better yet, such that it is inaudible) to others.
  3. If you operate a business or other premises open to the public, the obligation to be considerate and not to assault the senses applies to you as well. You may, for instance, in your discretion, choose to play music audibly to create the kind of environment you are trying to cultivate, but please, unless you are a concert hall, club, bar or similar venue, do not make that environment one that leaves your customers with a throbbing headache or makes them have to raise their voices just to hear one another. The environment you are intentionally or unintentionally creating in the immediate vicinity of your premises is also your responsibility, so do what you must to avoid clogged sidewalks and loud or rowdy gatherings.
  4. Do not spit, belch, gurgle, pass gas, pick your nose, bite your nails, urinate, defecate, masturbate or perform any other unseemly bodily functions.
  5. Consensual, non-incestuous, PG-rated public displays of affection are okay. Public displays of pornographic groping and gross indecency are not. When you dance with someone, do not simulate sex in any way whatsoever. (If you’re not sure of the line, apply this standard: would you do if it your grandmother were watching you?)
  6. Do not curse, say vulgar things or engage in obscene gestural displays. Generally, discussions of and references to any of the prohibited acts in Items 4 and 5 above fall squarely in the forbidden zone.
  7. Do not bully, threaten, taunt, mock, incite, insult or aim to offend. If you do any of these things unintentionally, apologize.
  8. No hitting, no fighting, no biting. No breaking criminal laws (even if you doubt you’ll get caught or punished).
  9. Do not panhandle, manhandle, glad-hand or grandstand. Unless you are in a designated “solicitation zone,”1 do not ask for signatures, donations or contributions. This means, as a general rule, leave other people alone unless you’re asking for directions or communicating in a way that you have good reason to think is either necessary or might be welcomed.
  10. Do not intentionally touch, grope or fondle anyone unless you are greeting them with a handshake in a context in which such a greeting would be appropriate. Wedgies, noogies and similar practices are prohibited. Respectful flirting is okay in environments where it might be construed as appropriate. Being pushy in a way that is clearly violating someone else’s boundaries is not.
  11. Do not proselytize either for or against any religious viewpoint. Religion (or lack thereof) is between you and your God(s) (or lack thereof).
  12. Do not vandalize, deface or damage persons or property.
  13. Do not litter.
  14. Like your music, your germs are your germs. Do your best not to share them with others. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and do not cough, sneeze or blow your nose directly at other people. Wash your hands frequently. Take steps to avoid smearing your germs on surfaces, and, if you do so unintentionally, wipe them when you can.
  15. When you eat and drink, eat and drink mindfully. Mind your manners. Take your time. Wash your hands before eating. Use your utensils. A meal is not a contest to see who finishes first. Therefore, wait to eat and drink until everyone has been served, and then proceed at more or less the same pace as others around you; savor the taste of your food, do not stuff your face or guzzle down beverages like there’s no tomorrow. Offer to serve others, especially children or the elderly, and where appropriate, offer to share food with others, but don’t just poke your own utensils into their plates or shared plates; rather, use serving spoons, etc.(unless everyone in your company is clearly okay with a different arrangement). This is especially important when you are sick, in which case you should be the one primarily responsible for ensuring that you keep your germs to yourself. Do not talk with your mouth full, get food all over your face or make a mess of yourself or your eating area. Do not spit food out unless the alternative is vomiting, in which case, try to spit your food out as inconspicuously as you can, such as when no one is looking and/or into a napkin. Do not eat food that has fallen on the floor. If you make a big mess unintentionally, take steps to clean it immediately. When the meal is finished, even if you are not the one with primary responsibility for cleaning up afterwards (such as when you are at a restaurant), do your part to ease the burden for others by leaving your eating area reasonably neat and orderly or taking such other steps as may be appropriate to do your share. If you like your food, do not hesitate to convey your compliments to the chef.
  16. When you conduct conversations, be mindful and respectful of others. Do your best not to interrupt constantly or to talk over others. Do not monopolize the conversation. Defer to your elders or to those who tend to speak less often. Where people are in the midst of speaking about something, do not burst in with a different topic unless you are contributing something of immediate practical import or making a quick observation of some circumstance of interest in your environment that will be missed if you let the moment pass. Pay attention to what others are saying. Try to include everyone and make others feel comfortable. Do not deride them. As above, keep your voice down to the minimal level necessary to be audible to all participants but not conspicuous to strangers, and do not talk with your mouth full.
  17. Upon greeting or parting with someone who is not already a good friend, intimate acquaintance or family member, do not fist-pump, chest-bump, high-five, hug, headbutt, back-slap, butt-slap or do anything other than nodding your head, waving, speaking (respectfully), kissing on the cheek or shaking hands.
  18. The only acceptable forms of public address, other than names, are “sir” or “Mr.” for men and boys and “ma’am” or “Miss” for women and girls. As such, do not address people as “man,” “buddy,” “buster,” “bro(ther),” “boss,” “chief,” “big guy,” “nigger,” “dude,” “chum,” “pal,” “friend,” “son,” “kid,” “boy,” “papi,” “mami,” “lady,” “sweetie,” “girl,” “girlfriend,” “darling,” “doll,” “babe,” “toots,” “ho,” “bitch,” or any variants on such terms, including, of course, anything that even borders on being a curse or derogatory term of any sort.
  19. When you speak or write, do your utmost to speak and write grammatically and appropriately. Unless you have a medical condition that impairs your faculties of speech, do not speak in grunts or slur or apocopate words. Avoid street slang and clichés whenever possible. When someone else speaks or writes ungrammatically or inappropriately, do not be afraid to correct them when the situation and context permit you to do so respectfully. And if you are being corrected, do not take it personally; it is a learning opportunity, not a reprimand.2
  20. Do not loiter unless there’s no obvious reason it poses a problem. This means, do not dally in any manner that obstructs passageways, doorways, driveways, highways and byways.
  21. In crowded environments, be mindful of your surroundings. Be aware you are not alone, and be considerate of others. Try to move with the flow of traffic. Do not shove, scratch, push or pull.
  22. When you walk, do not make a spectacle of yourself. Unless you have a relevant medical condition, do not limp, lurch, strut, swagger or sway from side to side.
  23. When you drive, obey the rules of the road. Defer to other cars, pedestrians, cyclists, etc., both when they have the right of way and when doing otherwise would result in accidents. Do not make a nuisance of yourself. Keep your music or radio audible only to those in your own vehicle. The horn is a tool to be used in order to alert drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, etc. who may not be paying attention or, in rare cases, to reprimand them for disobeying the rules of the road. It is not a means of letting out your rage at the world. So use it sparingly and appropriately, and do not press it repeatedly or for longer than necessary.
  24. When you ride a bicycle, skateboard, roller skates or similar contraption, obey the rules of the road, and do not ride on sidewalks or against the flow of traffic. As when you are driving, defer to cars, pedestrians, other cyclists, etc., both when they have the right of way and when doing otherwise would result in accidents. And as when you are driving, do not make a nuisance of yourself.
  25. Dress in a manner that you reasonably believe to be consistent with any existent explicit or implicit code of dress on a particular occasion, and never dress in a manner that gratuitously exposes your undergarments (or your failure to wear any) or don anything calculated to annoy or offend. This includes all adornments and accoutrements, which should never be vulgar.
  26. Tattoos (or any other body art) and piercings (except ear piercings for women and girls) are, by their nature, vulgar. Avoid them. If you have them, remove them.3
  27. If you can help it, do not reek.
  28. Respect “no smoking” signs. And, remember, “no smoking” means no smoking anything whatsoever. Moreover, if there is no smoking inside a given residence, business or other venue, do not smoke outside in a manner that will result in the smoke being blown right back inside.
  29. Respect all other (remotely reasonable) house and venue rules and codes of etiquette. It is your prerogative to impose on people reasonable directives about how they are to behave in your home (such as, for instance, asking them to put slippers on instead of stomping around in their work boots, etc.), so when you enter another’s home or venue, they should be able to expect the same.
  30. Keep anyone in your charge — kids, pets and the like — under control. Do your best to keep them from violating these rules. Groom them, curb them and clean up after them; in the process of doing these things, however, do not violate these rules yourself: unless there is immediate danger that can only be avoided through such actions, do not shout, scream, grab, push, shove, scratch, slap, claw, hit or make a scene.
  31. Unless someone else forced or tricked you into such conditions or unless something happened to you involuntarily or that you had reason not to understand the consequences of, you are responsible for what you do when you are drunk, stoned, high or in any other state of lowered self-control or altered consciousness. Think ahead, and if it’s already too late for that, and if you, as a result, have reason to believe you might do something that violates any of these rules, do your best to get yourself rapidly out of the public eye.
  32. When you can, help people who need help. Be considerate to those who are elderly, sick, disabled, overburdened or otherwise infirm. Offer a seat. When you see an opportunity to do someone a simple favor, don’t hesitate.
  33. Take every opportunity to be courteous, chivalrous and gallant. Let people who are older pass first. Hold doors open for people. Let them exit before entering. Offer to press buttons for them in elevators. These are only examples. Feel free to extrapolate.
  34. When you have done something you realize you should probably not have done, apologize. Then do your best to repair whatever may still be reparable.
  35. If you see others violating any of the provisions of this code, say something if you think you can do so safely and respectfully. And, above all, do not encourage them.
  36. Set an example. Do unto others ….  You know the rest.

[1]  We will designate particular public squares or other appropriate public gathering places as “solicitation zones.” Yes, this and some of the other provisions of this code might be seen as taking away from the vibrancy of our public places, but given how far we’ve already gone, a long lurch the other way, i.e., in the direction of dullness, might be a welcome antidote. While much has been made of Plato’s notorious proposal in the Republic to exile the poets from the ideal State, far less discussed has been a proposal of his inThe Laws that is, in my view, far more salutary to the health of the State: to exile the professional beggars.

[2]  A few words lest the many enemies of prescriptive linguistics see an opportunity to rise up in arms: I am aware that language changes and has always changed over time, that the errors of one epoch are the standard accepted forms of the next and that what is considered linguistically appropriate or grammatical is not an objective gold standard, but rather, an ever-evolving consensus necessarily responsive to current usage. My reaction to all of these truths is a simple so what? This is one of those matters as to which it behooves us as a society to act as if there are rules and standards, even if there will always be disputed matters at the margins. Just as we would (I should hope) never cease to teach schoolchildren standard spelling, grammar and pronunciation, we do not, for lack of objective rigor, need to give up hope of “educating” the adults amongst us who have not attained sufficient mastery of the field. Or, as Matthew Arnold puts it in describing those who oppose prescriptivism, “They tend to spread the baneful notion that there is no such thing as a high, correct standard in intellectual matters; that every one may as well take his own way; they are at variance with the severe discipline necessary for all real culture; they confirm us in habits of wilfulness and eccentricity, which hurt our minds, and damage our credit with serious people.” For those who need more convincing, this essay by Steven Pinker does a reasonably good job illuminating the matter: See Slate magazine here.

[3]  This is obviously a pretty conservative approach to take with respect to tattoos and piercings, but leaving people to their own devices on this score will, if looking around is any guide, rapidly lead to a race to the bottom and result in unfettered vulgarity.

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