Do We Still Need Codes of Etiquette?

Rather than focus on specialized dinner forks or individual pet peeves, modern etiquette must be for the sake of others’ comfort and well-being.

In February 2023, the editors of The Cut waded once more unto the breach of etiquette by way of a quasi-humorous list of 194 modern rules for polite behavior. Some of the guidelines are no doubt good advice in a social landscape increasingly bereft of absolutes. “It’s never too late to send a condolence note,” assures one guideline. “[If you see] someone shoplifting? No, you didn’t,” asserts another. Other tips verge on the intuitive, like those warning against phone usage at the dinner table, bare feet in the office, and disingenuous compliments under any circumstances. But then, of course, comes the deluge of bad advice: “Do not touch the small of my back to move around me at the bar if you’re ugly,” “Never show that you’re impressed by anyone,” “Always wink,” and, lest you forget, “If you’re penetrating, you pay.” A final few start out promisingly, then veer into utter insanity, like a rebuke to “Never ask someone about their nationality if you want to know their ethnicity,” which goes on to suggest a more “honest,” and infinitely more impolite, alternative: “What’s your ethnic heritage?” 

Unsurprisingly, Twitter and the wider Internet ate the article alive. “I can’t believe not bringing up your allergies at a dinner party is one of them,” read one such response. “Wouldn’t the real faux pas be accidentally killing your friend?” Others opted for stronger language: “That etiquette piece in The Cut is the work of a Hannibal Lecter-level psycho. Just an unhinged list of very specific personal pet peeves.” The New York Post called the piece “deeply infantilizing,” while the Independent opted for “deranged.” And countless wondered whether the list was meant to be read seriously at all, like the person who summarized it as “perfect Twitter outrage bait” consisting of a “random assortment of bad quality etiquette advice, oddly specific second person conversation policing, and incredibly aggressive jokes.”

Perhaps the confusion had less to do with The Cut and more to do with our culture at large. Not only are the specifics of modern etiquette controversial, but the very notion of “standard” etiquette as a social good is widely contested. After all, mainstream American etiquette throughout history has been used to reinforce racism and classism by codifying proper performance of whiteness and wealth. It has been wielded as a shibboleth: something mundane, but fraught, that distinguishes one group from another. Today, a more intuitive sense of what constitutes “good manners” and “well-adjustedness” prevails, seemingly, in most of the United States. This intuitive approach is undergirded by a set of thought-terminating clichés, perhaps best-exemplified by the tenets of Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1986), which include “Share everything” and “Play fair.” There are also those ubiquitous Pass It On billboards that line highways across the United States, critiqued in a recent Current Affairs article by Stephen Prager: “Be a force for good,” says a picture of Oprah. “The other person might be right,” suggests a picture of twins. These are guidelines for postmodern propriety: instructions for sociality in a world where everything is now understood to be a social construct—where the closest thing to a universal truth may well be, in fact, “Live, laugh, love” written in script on a doormat.

That is to say, controversy enveloped the Cut piece not merely because its advice was bad, but also because it dared to create a taxonomy of behavior in the first place. And the piece’s own internal inconsistencies reflect the extent to which social behavior has become subject to intuition, as opposed to expectation. For example, the article advises at once that one “ask how much everyone pays in rent,” while simultaneously, several lines down, issuing an injunction to “[never] ask people how much they pay in rent.” The discomfort caused by the compilation of such a list of absolutes is obvious in the piece’s internal ironies as well. “Do not touch the small of my back to move around me at the bar if you’re ugly,” for example, is self-terminating without even needing to rely on a cliché. Its sarcasm renders it functionally meaningless as far as advice goes—and perhaps that was the point. 

The half-life of “shared” etiquette has proven remarkably short, given the many treatises it has yielded over the centuries, and its relevance as a determining factor in society continues to decay—from politics on down. What remains of the elaborate codes of conduct of yore has been broken down into discrete, digestible parts, metabolized through any number of distinctly modern paradigms. Some of the better parts of modern conduct come from social justice and organizing discourse; much of the rest comes by way of pop psychology, with its misappropriated therapy jargon. The two might as well represent different ideologies: where one advises leaning into discomfort, the other calls for boundaries. And yet, many people preach both at once.

The rise of a more subjective approach has had at least one major pitfall where etiquette is concerned, even if the trend is governed by good intentions: namely, that, now, in lieu of other universal standards, one has only oneself (with all of one’s own neuroses, flaws, and biases) as a barometer for behavior. The Cut contributor who chipped in #72, which reads, “If you like them, text people within three hours of hanging out with them,” confesses that (unsurprisingly) the dictum is guided by her own anxious desire for “verification of a successful hang.” Another entry, #8, asserts that “It’s acceptable to tell any kind of lie in order to leave a drinks date,” on the assumption that “if the conversation is so painful you’re considering making up a story about a sick animal, your date will probably feel relieved.” In both cases, the advice given is more about making the self comfortable in the short-term than making the other feel comfortable—despite the fact that an eye toward the other is probably the closest thing to a key to both parties’ long-term social confidence. 

The self-interestedness of such suggestions calls to mind Émile Durkheim’s Suicide (1897), with its description of anomie: the state of social instability that accompanies greater individualism when it comes with the erosion of shared values, characterized by feelings of purposelessness, futility, and despair. Durkheim attributes this phenomenon to an ever-more-specialized division of labor and ever-faster shifts in social life. “Anom[ie] indeed springs from the lack of collective forces at certain points in society; that is, of groups established for the regulation of social life,” he writes. “[The] gaps between one and another individual consciousness, estranging them from each other, are authentic results of the weakening of the social fabric.” Later writers would recast Durkheim’s theory of anomie as the problem of social “normlessness,” which leaves individuals adrift even within the confines of their own community. 

For the Left, the risk of anomie goes beyond any individual’s social confidence. At stake in even the most mundane social interactions is no less than the viability of any movement requiring mass solidarity. Our ability to build intimacy in everyday life is essential for sustaining political momentum through protests, strikes, direct actions, and occupations—as well as the backlash that so often accompanies bold actions. The Cut’s etiquette guide is an education in social alienation, but its shortcomings provide a valuable opportunity to imagine alternative ways of existing in the everyday—guided by our attunement to the Other. Political resilience does not start on the picket line or up against a police barricade; it starts on sidewalks and subways, and is as apt to be tested at the DMV as in the DSA. It is honed not only under fire, but in moments when we are called upon to make far smaller gestures: to introduce, to excuse, to apologize, to forgive, to mediate, to host, to grieve, to comfort, to compliment, to listen, and to lend a hand.

Emily Postmortem

The practical trouble with etiquette is, of course, that it has been wielded more often as a shibboleth than as a social safety net—used to create divisions, rather than bridge divides. In 1968, the historian Arthur Schlesinger published Learning How to Behave: A Historical Study of American Etiquette Books, one of the first texts to examine etiquette manuals as a genre. By his account, “American” etiquette began with efforts to reproduce European courtly refinement in the colonies. What was at first predominantly religious guidance—preached from colonial pulpits and echoed in almanacs like Poor Richard, and enforced by way of the whip, ducking stool, and stockade—grew more complex in the early Republic. Southern slaveholders living on large plantations were the most enthusiastic about these codes of behavior, modeling themselves after the English landed gentry, who were, in turn, imitating the quasi-mythic codes of chivalry performed by English nobles, themselves imitating the French in the late middle and early modern periods. (Courtly behavior was, of course, useless to the vast majority of colonial Americans, as many as one-third of whom were indentured, apprenticed, or convicts, and one-fifth enslaved.)

But those would-be heirs to the mores of the Old World faced, during the early 19th century, a shift in the very hierarchy reinforced by the concept of the “good breeding” of the ruling class. Schlesinger points to two concurrent trends: on the one hand, the expansion of suffrage to all white men, and not merely those who owned property, and on the other hand, an expansion in property ownership to a greater number of white men. Thus emerged that pervasive American myth, perhaps not so mythic at first, and with it a new reason for good etiquette: the notion that with industry, frugality, and good manners, any citizen could rise, as President Andrew Jackson himself had, from poverty to the upper echelons of American society. 

The role that etiquette played in daily life changed as well. It remained a kind of status symbol, accessible only to the limited few—but where it previously served to make clear the social strata from which a well-mannered man or lady had come, now it said more about where they were going, or hoped to go, in the nascent American empire. “There are no distinctions in America which are certain and permanent,” wrote Catharine Maria Sedgwick, in an 1842 self-education guide for adolescent girls. “The tenant of a log-house in the western wilderness acquires independence, and becomes a representative to Congress, and his wife and daughters figure in the drawing-rooms of Washington. The merchant of New York fails in business, and removes his family from Broadway to a prairie home.” The result was an American etiquette intended to empower its practitioner in fluent interactions with people of all classes—with the obvious problematic side effect of ideologically reinforcing those categories. “You should look forward to … possible vicissitudes and be prepared for them,” warned Sedgwick. “You have it in your own power to fit yourselves by the cultivation of your minds, and the refinement of your manners for intercourse, on equal terms, with the best society in our land.” 

That might have been true on the page, but in practice, a new white American aristocracy swiftly emerged in the wake of the Civil War and resurrected something like the over-compensatory courtly etiquette of yore. Sedgwick was right, to a degree, that the poor could become rich, but the nouveau riche were as self-conscious of the recency of their rise as those new to the peerage in medieval Europe. With the mining, railroading, banking, and manufacturing barons of the late 19th century came perhaps the most familiar shift in etiquette: that which yielded the extensive, Byzantine rules of decorum that theoretically governed high society in the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras. New etiquette books were generated at the rate of five or six per year between 1870 and 1917, their rules further propagated by women’s magazines and advice columns that received thousands of queries—quickly eradicating any social memory of the republican virtues of previous decades. Schlesinger quotes the towering journalist E. L. Godkin, founder of The Nation, who asked in his Problems of Modern Democracy (1896) whether a distinctly American renovatio imperii Romanorum (that is, rejuvenation of imperial Rome, which itself rose from the ashes of the Roman Republic) were not now afoot: “Is it possible we are about to renew on this soil, at the end of the nineteenth century, the extravagances and follies of the later Roman Empire and of the age of Louis XIV?” Godkin was referring here to conspicuous consumption, but etiquette was its own means of attracting attention: a set of conspicuous injunctions, perhaps.

By the time the now-ubiquitous Emily Post entered the fray in the aftermath of the First World War, she was obviously far from the first to pen a tome on politeness. Her Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home (1922) is an encyclopedic account of correct behavior—down to the very intonation with which different social introductions should be made—in the early Interwar period. Etiquette has remained a family affair in the decades since Post’s death, with her great-great-grandchildren Lizzie Post and Daniel Post Senning responsible for its latest editions: the 19th (2017) and Centennial (2022). The great American writer and wit Dorothy Parker reviewed the 1927 edition of Etiquette with an attitude that feels remarkably contemporary. “As one delves deeper and deeper into Etiquette, disquieting thoughts come,” she writes. “That old Is-It-Worth-It Blues starts up again, softly, perhaps, but plainly.” Parker’s main problem with Post is that the society she encourages is irrefutably dull. “Safe” conversation topics offered as examples by Post include, for example, “I’m thinking of buying a radio. Which make do you think is best?” among other gems. “I may not dispute Mrs. Post,” writes Parker. “If she says that is the way you should talk, then, indubitably, that is the way you should talk. But… there is no force great enough ever to make me say, ‘I’m thinking of buying a radio.’”

Parker—whose oeuvre includes “The Waltz” (1944), a story in which a girl privately laments an unpleasant dance with an unattractive partner, whose hand she has been forced to accept out of politeness—would no doubt have found some relief in the relaxation of American manners in the latter half of the 20th century. In theory, such a relaxation makes the U.S. less of a monoculture, and thereby more accommodating of other societal norms—specifically the customs and manners of minority cultures. These had no place, certainly, in Post’s and her predecessor’s sweeping generalizations of “good” and “bad” behavior in America. The relaxation of etiquette also, no doubt, makes life more interesting by permitting individual expression, unexpected intimacies, and contingencies of all kinds. 

But there is a loss, of sorts, to consider as well. It is easy (and, in some respects, a good assumption, given the role that American etiquette has played in reinforcing systems of oppression) to interpret texts like Emily Post’s Etiquette in entirely bad faith: to see in them a code of conduct that is at once arbitrary and yet exacting, monolithic and yet stratifying. At its very worst, etiquette structures a system in which people live and die by their familiarity with something called a “fish fork.” But etiquette, at its best, also offers a fallback option for some of the most charged—and often unintuitive—encounters in life: apologizing, expressing condolences, offering gratitude, making a romantic move. Ideally, in some of the stock phrases etiquette provides, there is a gesture of that which is otherwise near-ineffable—a reassurance that, yes, there are things that are difficult to put into words, that we are not the first to try, that thoughtfulness is a social and moral good whether its expression is entirely original or not. It calls us to a higher standard than Pass It On and All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten prescribe. We must do more than pay lip service to the ties that bind us to our fellow human beings—we must act on them, in concrete ways, as well.

Social Anxiety Industrial Complex

The sixth edition of The Social-Official Etiquette of the United States (1894) opens with a long-forgotten tune with such rousing lyrics as “if order is heaven’s first law, / we should not regard as beneath careful attention / the proper recognition of rules / which may tend to avoid confusion in social life.” That confusion, no doubt real in a period of enormous social transformation like the late 19th century, is still with us today—but social graces are now commonly regarded as intuitive and individual, and perhaps even innate, as implied by the notion of “emotional intelligence.” 

Moreover, many of the places where one might go to practice said social graces, from the lycée to the labor hall, have followed Emily Post to her grave. For most Americans, daily socialization is increasingly limited to coworkers and family members. Robert D. Putnam’s classic Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) describes at length the decline in American participation in any dimension of civil society, from labor unions to fraternal organizations. He hypothesizes that this trend is linked to the rise of entertainment technology and the related “individualization” of leisure time. Now, people can get all the pleasures of social interaction from home—in a digital field of play where, with few exceptions, the id rules. The onus is on the uncomfortable and offended to remove themselves from an adverse encounter. Most digital spaces have few or no rules regarding how one ought to treat others encountered online. Reddit may have its “Reddiquette,” but most platforms fall back on a kind of social Realpolitik where practically anything goes.

Under such circumstances, is it any surprise that diagnoses of social anxiety have skyrocketed since its first inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), in 1994, to 7.1 percent of Americans by the turn of the millennium, and untold numbers since? Not to mention the countless more who have self-diagnosed with social anxiety, characterized by feelings of awkwardness, uncertainty, embarrassment in social settings, and a fear of judgment, causing them to avoid social interaction altogether. It is no doubt the case that many who have social anxiety, with and without formal diagnoses, do suffer from genuine conditions that are improved by medical and psychotherapeutic treatments—but it can also be true that external social factors have exacerbated, perhaps even generated, the symptoms that characterize social anxiety. Some indication of this can perhaps be found among those who turn to, instead of therapy, a different kind of counsel altogether. With the atrophy of certain social muscles from simple lack of use, no doubt exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, a growing number of people seem to feel themselves flailing in their already-limited opportunities for social interaction—creating opportunities for an entire $1.5 billion coaching industry dedicated to helping people figure out how to act. Indeed, in a recent article for Current Affairs, Ronald Purser describes the appeal of achievement-focused life coaching as rooted in the very same atomization that drives some people ashamedly indoors: workers languishing in the “loneliness epidemic” are, despite their labor, unable to afford mental health treatment, and so turn instead to cheaper-than-therapy coaches. These coaches, in turn, diagnose their clients not with what Purser calls “a sane response to the crisis of work,” but rather a pathological deficit of workplace motivation. A social problem is thereby made a personal weakness—even a failure.

The array of coaching services available today goes well beyond the motivational, though all make a similar gambit. In addition to mainstream life coaches, like those who specialize in career- and team-building, one can find everything from conversation to relationship to intimacy coaches. There are even friendship coaches and coaches who claim to be able to help the aspiring socialite penetrate the highest echelons of the New York party circuit. While these instructors agree with etiquette writers that social viability can be learned—“Kobe did not become Kobe overnight,” proclaims the website for Become More Compelling coaching—they espouse a model that has more in common with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) than Emily Post and her imitators. Their advice is fundamentally self-serving, concerned with social graces only insofar as they allow one to accrue a kind of social capital. In 1937, the satirist Sinclair Lewis summarized Carnegie’s work as a treatise on how to “smile and bob and pretend to be interested in other people’s hobbies precisely so that you may screw things out of them.” There is something extractive about Carnegie’s approach to attractive behavior, as though others exist merely as a font from which, with a few well-placed taps, oil may flow. 

Similarly, there is something off-putting about dating coaching, which gamifies human relationships and frames the successful extraction of sex as evidence of success more broadly. Where etiquette once prescribed, in essence, a predictable pattern along which a romantic relationship could proceed from first meeting to wedding, modern dating guidelines attempt to assuage anxiety by simply giving their followers an upper hand. A New York Times report from January introduced readers to the realm of dating coaches who specialize in texting specifically. One of the featured practitioners is Kelsey Wonderlin, creator of the Texting Communication Cure Crash Course, which claims to offer counsel on any number of app-based angsts that they themselves reinforce, including: “Is triple texting that bad?” “How frequently should you be in contact in the early stages of dating?” “How do you confront someone who has ghosted you? How long do you wait and what do you say?” “Should you add an exclamation mark? Is two too many?” The room for error is extensive: the Times notes adverse possibilities including appearing both too eager and not eager enough in conversation. Most of all, there is the possibility of misinterpretation: that your interlocutor interprets your periods of unreachability as rudeness, your “k” as angry, your “haha” as disingenuous. The risk run, though, is not upsetting your conversation partner, so much as losing the larger game that is modern dating.

Etiquette experts have been around for a very long time, but this mode of coaching professionalization goes further than the authorship of a book on the subject. Social coaching is expensive, sustained, and one-on-one. Like a stint in therapy that never ends—which, by the way, is a uniquely American phenomenon—it implies a kind of fundamental defect in the individual. Even as it ameliorates a person’s short-term problem of, say, being awkward on Tinder, it has the long-term effect of normalizing, facilitating, and even enforcing social alienation and apartness. If the social coach—the etiquette expert’s bastard child—can be said to have an ideology, that ideology actually defies the mainstream reliance on intuition and common sense. Coaching claims that good manners cannot be picked up effortlessly, by even a kindergartener, to be used for one’s own good as well as for the good of others. Rather, they require enormous expenditure to acquire and are to be used mainly for securing sex, money, clout, and comfort. Of course, sex, money, clout, and comfort have always been a theme in etiquette—but for the social coach, they are its only ends.

Carnegie’s vaunted advice might include, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity,” but ethical philosophers remind us that, when we deal with said “creatures,” we are in fact dealing with other human beings. Even some of the 19th-century etiquette guides that have aged the worst gesture toward the connection between good manners and morality in action. The aforementioned banger, “If Order is Heaven’s First Law,” concludes with the assurance that “that which is called good breeding / is actually the golden rule carried into practice.” But even without the Christian overtones, a case can be made for treating etiquette as more than mere frivolity. The philosopher Sarah Buss contends that, fundamentally, codes of etiquette are not so much about setting the table correctly as about “avoid[ing] being discourteous, impolite, rude, inconsiderate, offensive, insulting,” about treating others with a respect that implicitly acknowledges their “intrinsic value” and “dignity.” In such a framework, violations of manners can amount to moral violations, and the fact that some are seemingly arbitrary does little to dampen that effect. “We [must] ask: what does the code mean now?” says Buss. “What do its rules signify to those who accept its authority? If, as seems obvious, the essential point of these rules is to instruct people on how to treat each other respectfully, and if … treating people respectfully is essential to treating them with respect, then the essential point of good manners is a moral point.” Respect, from this perspective, must be expressed behaviorally in order to exist at all. It is not enough to merely refrain from harming others, explains Buss: we must also do the work of acknowledging the dignity of those around us by displaying good manners under even the most mundane of circumstances.


It is on this front that the Cut piece fails most substantially. Consider the ninety-ninth problem posed by The Cut: “Ignore your colleagues on the subway.” While the justification for this rule is seemingly thoughtful—the author claims that the “commute, in the right light, is a sacred space not to be infringed upon” for both parties in question—it fails to consider that this behavior is likely to come across as rude and hurtful to the other party, given that this guideline is not in accordance with mainstream behavior whatsoever. Most people’s intuitive sense of manners, after all, requires that they at least acknowledge the existence of those they know in the world. And while ignoring a coworker in favor of blissed-out silence on the subway might be preferable to you—hell, maybe even to them, too—it inevitably deals a blow to solidarity, too, by asserting that the best way to engage with one’s colleagues is as little as possible. In another piece for Current Affairs, Lily Sánchez describes The Cut’s defense of “zoning out” whilst commuting as straightforwardly pro-alienation: it “reinforces atomization and makes it easier to ignore one’s surroundings and the needs of others around us,” she writes. It makes possible the very lack of empathy that stops people from advocating for society’s most vulnerable members underground—and even from intervening in their deaths, as in the murder of Jordan Neely in May 2023.

On Camaraderie Between Comrades

Where the Cut article grows most conventional with its advice is on those very themes ripe for a change in American culture—namely, the lattermost of the three subjects which, according to tradition, one is never supposed to bring up over dinner: religion, politics, and money. First, The Cut poses its two contradictory pieces of advice regarding rent. Later, the guide advises against ever asking someone what their job is, on the grounds that “it’s classist and boring,” ignoring (in, arguably, subliminally classist fashion) the fact that many Americans, in order to make ends meet, have little going on other than their jobs. Perhaps the most conservative advice of all, however, is as follows: “If you hear rumblings of layoffs and are wondering if a friend or acquaintance was affected, the gentlest way to inquire is ‘Sounds like a tough day at [insert company or team name]. Sending good vibes.’” The statement is a three-tone death knell for labor organizing: an assertion that, even in desperate times, all we are obliged to do, to be “in the right” (and in the Right), is to think positively toward someone, proffer our “thoughts and prayers,” project our “vibes” in their direction. This etiquette may well reflect a dominant ideology of U.S. culture, but it certainly does not satisfy the moral demands of socialism, which must go well beyond “good vibrations” in its commitment to egalitarianism and human flourishing.

Both banal statements of political ambivalence and self-diagnosed social anxiety (in the colloquial, as opposed to clinical, sense) directly jeopardize leftist political solidarity. If someone doesn’t have the confidence or desire to interact casually with another person, how can those two people band together when the going gets tough? It may be true that adverse circumstances often bring people together, but that is no long-term solution. A sustainable labor movement and Left need to be bound by more than a feeling of solidarity born-of-crisis. They need to be bound by a tightly-knit social fabric that is capable of withstanding not only the bad times, but the good as well. Building a strong political movement is not so different from building a strong community—and both require similar things from their members. Can you apologize fluently? Can you cope with rejection? Can you thank someone sincerely? Can you forgive someone who has wronged you? Can you handle disagreements, ideological and otherwise? Can you offer meaningful sympathy to a friend in need? 

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) might try to employ the orderly parliamentary procedure laid out by Robert’s Rules of Order (1876) in its meetings, but once the meeting has ended, playground politics rule. Leftist discourse online is a particular bacchanalia of bad blood. Of course, the Left has been fractious and sectarian throughout its history; it is no less so now that the stakes of socialism have risen as hypercapitalism closes in, with catastrophic climate change close behind. Those rising stakes, however, demand that we rise to the occasion—and to do so, we must rise above the roiling anti-sociality of the Internet to recover an embodied sense of our obligations to one another. It is only offline that the virtues of the “social” part of “socialism” become clear. And while it is difficult to exist in community, we are far from the first to find it so; in fact, people have written entire books about it. Perhaps we need not dismiss everything those texts represent, even as we reject the social hierarchies they once sustained.

At its best, after all, shared etiquette calls us to do, while intuition allows us to merely feel—all while maintaining our alienation. And the outright rejection of shared etiquette is a political statement in its own right: an assertion that understanding will always be limited by identitarianism, or else undermined by individualism. That is not to say an Emily Post-style list of earnest, granular rules for behavior is necessary; just that intuition alone, based on one’s own experience, is at least as limited in perspective as any paperback etiquette guide, past or present. What many historical etiquette guides do take for granted, however, that so much modern discourse about manners disregards, is that legible communication with others has certain moral stakes in addition to social stakes: both practically and ethically, etiquette must be for the sake of the other. And for leftists operating in the estranged social and political landscape of the contemporary United States, where sociality itself is a virtue in decline, recalling that notion of etiquette might offer its own unexpected opportunity for political engagement. With some conceptual rehabilitation, perhaps we can reclaim some of etiquette’s assumptions—foremost being the idea that mundane gestures can go a long way—to communicate everyday solidarity in the face of a capitalism that feasts on our alienation from not only our labor, but also from one another.

Illustration by Madeline Horwath.

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