Courtesy and Collective Action

Don’t hold everyone up, just wait for the next train. Also, don’t lose your hand. – my visual translation

One of the toilet reading options at my apartment is the 1978 edition of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette. It is filled with helpful advice on how you should address your letters, monogram your shirts, and throw tasteful parties. The standards advocated seem quaint and humorous from today’s perspective.

In many ways, the rules of etiquette seem completely arbitrary. How can there be a “right” way to eat food or dress? Yet there is sub-set of etiquette that has a firm intellectual foundation – courtesy or manners. Take Mrs. Vanderbilt’s passage on teaching your children manners:

Even a three-year-old can understand the Golden Rule. An eight-year-old can understand very well, too, that manners are an efficient way of behaving that enables the group to operate more easily. It is the little things that make life easier and more pleasant for all of us. “Good manners” are not something to be turned on for special occasions, but should become an integral part of our daily lives, no matter what our age.

The principle behind manners is that behaving courteously is in everyone’s enlightened self-interest. Life is just better if people treat each other nicely.

So why are there so many assholes? Courtesy is collective action problem. It requires group coordination and deferral of gratification for everyone to reap benefits. If you act courteously and the person your dealing with doesn’t, you get treated poorly while they still get your niceness. Only by working together does as system of common-courtesy work. It only takes one person to blare horrible music on the subway for a mutually-beneficial system to break down. Once you think no one else is going to treat you nicely, what reason do you have to be nice yourself?

Its is generally assumed that people in cities are more rude and people in small towns are nicer. For the most part, this has been true in my experience, and I think there is a reason for this. In small towns, there are more repeat players. People have to interact with the same people over and over, and if someone is an asshole, the rest of the town knows and may ostracize that person. The person on the subway doesn’t expect to deal with his fellow passengers ever again, so he can defect from what is socially acceptable behavior without fear of reprisal. A recent study found that “prosocial” behavior in cities did not grown as quickly as economic growth and innovation, so I’m betting that there is something to this interpretation.

Of course, what is courteous behavior is defined by each society. I think part of the culture shock of living in Boston has been taking  things personally that aren’t personal to people here. On the other hand, I think my standards of common courtesy are more beneficial because not too many people around here seem very happy. Bitching seems to be the primary way to create social solidarity. I cut Bostonians some slack because of the weather. Come January and February, I’m as nasty to be around as anyone.

The purpose of this post is to encourage people to work together to make day-to-day life more enjoyable, that is, be more courteous. You may not get to do exactly what you want at any given moment, but overall, everyone wins. Get on board, and don’t let the people around you get away with being rude. I’ll be tweeting some basic guidelines from Mrs. Vanderbilt every day, so (shameless plug) follow me on Twitter. I promise not to tweet while I’m on the toilet.

Picture courtesy of eerkmans under a creative commons license.