27 Etiquette Rules For Our Times

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“It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct,” Sigmund Freud said.

There’s always a tension between how much we should follow our instincts and how much we should yield to social conventions. But at times like ours, the tendency is to tilt too far toward our instincts, since the conventions are changing fast and there’s no consensus about them anyway. There’s a risk in that. You don’t know whom you might be offending or how you might be sabotaging your own success.

The original etiquette manuals of Western civilization were in fact success manuals. As author Steven Pinker notes, they taught knights and nobles how to conduct themselves in the court of the king—which is where we get the concepts of “courtly” and “courtesy.”[See this related post for more on the history of manners, including Pinker’s provocative suggestion that the rise of manners at the dinner table helped bring about a steep decline in violence on the streets.]

I asked some tasteful and civilized friends and colleagues what an updated manual for 2014 would look like. Here are 27 rules to help you, whether at an office lunch, the company gym or the birthday party of your child’s schoolmate.

You’ll notice a common denominator in all of them: Think about other people’s feelings first because it’s not all about maximizing your personal convenience.

1. Texting “Hey, I’m running 20 minutes late” is not as acceptable as making the effort to be on time.

2. If you can’t attend an event that you’re formally invited to, don’t think that not RSVPing is the same as declining. And don’t RSVP at the last minute for an event that involves real planning by the host.

3. Show some decency around the office refrigerator: If you didn’t put the food in, don’t eat it. And take your leftovers home or throw them out before they morph into some radioactive nightmare.

4. Don’t bellow on your cell phone. Just because you can’t hear the other person well doesn’t mean the other person can’t hear you well.

5. Turn off the phone at a dinner party, and be in the moment. You’re annoying at least one person who thinks you have no social skills. At bare minimum, turn off the ringer so you can text and conspire in relative stealth.

6. Remember that if you feel a need to respond immediately to every incoming text, you’ll lose more in the eyes of the person who’s in front of you than you’ll gain from the unseen people who are benefiting from your efficiency.

7. When you get to the front of the line at Starbucks SBUX +0.29%, don’t tell the barista to wait while you wrap up your phone discussion. The barista hates you, and so does everyone behind you. They are hoping the barista spits in your latte.

8. If you come late to an exercise class, don’t think you’re entitled to barge your way to your favorite spot in the front.  And don’t block others from weight racks or other equipment—just step back three feet and make everyone happy.

9. Keep personal conversations and arguments off social networking sites. The dramatic airing of grievances is best done through SMS .

10. Moderate your use of cameras and video at events. Enjoy your time with colleagues, friends and family in the present and preserve only a memento for the future, rather than recording the entire thing to “relive” later in some “free” time that you’ll never actually have.

11. Remember how easily e-gossip can be forwarded along to the wrong person.

12. Just because you’re wearing headphones doesn’t mean you can tune out from social courtesies. For example, if you accidentally cross someone’s personal space, apologize graciously.

13. Don’t lend someone a book or item unless they specifically ask for it. They’re probably too busy to ever get around to it. They’ll feel guilty about that, and you’ll be annoyed that they didn’t appreciate it or even get around to returning it.

14. Don’t RSVP for an event, then not show. Now you’re not just being rude, but you’re costing the host money, and you’ve probably kept a lonely soul from being invited as a backup.

15. Don’t be the first or second person to talk on your cell phone in a public space (like a bus or train). If everyone’s doing it, you’re allowed some slack here.

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