The 140 Commandments: Phoebe Maltz Bovy examines a hot new guide to etiquette

Cutting-edge etiquette from 1879.

Everybody who’s everybody is talking about this new feature from New York magazine, an etiquette guide explaining “how to text, tip, ghost, host, and generally exist in polite society today.”

Will you, personally, find it helpful? Given that the first item is, “You don’t have to read everyone’s book,” it’s clear that the audience for the guide is the sort of person who has friends who’ve just published books, and who’s losing sleep over the etiquette of supporting them in their publishing journey. Things get more rarefied as the list progresses, with multiple items addressing the etiquette of mingling with movie stars.

One cannot fault an outlet called New York magazine for the U.S.—or New York-specific stuff about it being taboo for straight people to call their husbands or wives “partner” (not a thing in Canada far as I can tell), and exactly how much to tip in New York restaurants (possibly not applicable to a morning muffin in Manitoba).

But a lot of the advice is either light and entertaining, or general and sound, from item 6, “Never wake up your significant other on purpose, ever,” to 101, “Don’t comment on other people’s food.”

And I cannot endorse enough item 28, “Don’t ask people how they got COVID.” Nobody knows-knows how they got an airborne virus so to ask this is just to ask who they think seems germ-ridden.

The guide will be interesting in decades or even centuries to come, as a sense of what right-thinking sorts thought about in 2023. And etiquette these days is about avoiding microaggressions. There are two separate items on misgendering. There’s item 31, “Never ask someone about their nationality if you want to know their ethnicity,” followed up by 32, “Accents aren’t ‘cute,'” bearing the explanation, “It’s condescending to describe them thusly.”

To “address two or more women as ‘ladies'” is “creepy.” To ask someone what they do for work, “classist.”

There are, in other words, eggshells aplenty. This is a guide for people who want to be polite, but also, between the lines, maybe, for those afraid of getting cancelled.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz