Picture this: You’re in the parking lot at Berkeley Bowl, wedged between a giant SUV on your left side, and a long phalanx of cars behind you. Two cars back, a driver is laying on his horn. The person in front of him is stealthily creeping up, until there’s but an inch of clearance between his car and your rear bumper. A woman is knocking on your window to inform you that the driver two cars back “seems very upset.” Then, lo and behold, a parking space opens up. You put on your signal the moment you see a wan flicker of brake lights. You’re signaling. You’re signaling. Your car is a ship, ready to dock on the starboard side. You’re angling to get it. This is amazing. You’re almost there. And then a Prius comes in out of nowhere and swoops to take it from you. Welcome to Berkeley.
Such scenarios may present a distinctly modern portrait of bad parking lot etiquette, but according to a new exhibit at the Hayward Area Historical Society, motorist misconduct is nothing new. An excerpt from Emily Post’s 1940 Book of Etiquette, one of the archival pieces on display in Good Manners: Everyday Etiquette Past & Present (on display through April 4 at the Historical Society), offers a tutorial on appropriate decorum in the car. “Trumpet horns — those raucous, penetrating signals designed for use on the open road — are as out of place in city driving as hobnailed golfing shoes in a ballroom,” Post wrote. She went on to list examples of several early 20th-century faux pas that remain applicable today, even if the language seems out of date. The horn-blowing dictum led to a more persnickety diatribe about “Certain Bad Manners of Women Drivers.” Wrote Post: “Among the worst of these should be put the window shopper — she who crawls along a crowded thoroughfare with her gaze fastened upon the store windows.”
One thing the exhibit makes apparent is that manners don’t enjoy the same vogue today as they did a century ago. In the old days, codes of etiquette existed partly to maintain civility in social transactions, but also to uphold an old-world hierarchical order. Take, for instance, the rules on “calling cards,” which once functioned as a form of admission for anyone wanting to visit someone of a higher social rank. “How you used your card depended on who you were and the status of the other person,” said Good Manners exhibit curator Diane Curry. “You might come in your carriage and send your footman up to the mistress of the house. She would decide whether she had time to see you.” To a modern observer that degree of formality may seem preposterous, but Curry said that calling cards are actually making a comeback in certain circles. Apparently, now that social barriers are steadily breaking down, some people are getting nostalgic for the class divisions of yore.
Curry admits to being a bit of a manners enthusiast herself. She devised Good Manners as a way to showcase all the quirky old etiquette books in the museum’s collection, and contrast them to modern manuals. The exhibit deals with four aspects of quotidian life: work, dining, visiting someone’s home, and being “out and about.” It shows how shifts in etiquette parallel changes in society and technology. “Good manners” now include cautions about using your cell phone in public; rules for dining at a sushi house versus an Eritrean restaurant; and even a rule against listening to your iPod while someone is trying to talk to you. (Surely we’ve all witnessed the one earbud trick.)
A quick Internet search revealed that some maintainers of proper etiquette are trying (futilely) to implement a code of decorum for Facebook. The rules, according to Washington University Student Life contributor Jessica Sommer, are as follows: Do not send chain letters; do not post indecent material — including, but not limited to, “naked woman composed of asterisks, dashes, and money signs;” do not write a book about yourself; do not make your wall “a shrine to anyone in particular;” and do not “go awry when it comes to friending.” I would add: Do not get carried away with gifts, FunWall requests, or other applications, and do not poke anyone you would not consider poking in real life.
What’s most salient about the Historical Society exhibit is how obsolete good manners have become. Let’s face it: We’re a society of fewer divisions and stratifications, and most of the old rules need not apply anymore. It’s no longer necessary for a man to walk on the outside of a woman’s path to protect her from runaway carriages (note: holding the door is still a nice gesture). Unless you’re a phone sex operator, it’s no longer necessary to “cultivate a pleasant telephone voice and speak in a soft, well-modulated tone,” as one guru advised in 1935. Not to mention few people interpret a “white tie” dress code to mean “a black tailcoat, matching trousers with a single stripe of satin or braid, a white pique wing-collared shirt with a stiff white front, a white vest, a white bow tie, white or gray gloves, black patent shoes, and black dress socks.”
But some etiquette fanatics are trying to bring manners back into fashion, even in today’s more roguish, decadent culture. Curry said the Emily Posts and Amy Vanderbilts of last century have now been supplanted by new social class conservators like New York designer Kate Spade, whose 2004 book, Manners, details all her pet peeves about cell phone use, thank-you notes, dining faux pas, tipping, and how to properly “re-gift.” “It seems like an old-fashioned topic, but it’s sooo not,” said Curry.
To wit: The display case with Emily Post’s 1940 guide for motorists also includes an updated 2004 edition, which includes such things as rubbernecking; road rage; snacking, putting on makeup, or chatting on a cell phone while driving; “keeping your cool at intersections” and not blocking pedestrian crosswalks; and parking lot etiquette — which includes, among other things, not trying to cram your SUV into spaces reserved for compacts. I would add to that a stricture against wanton horn-blowing, knocking on people’s windows, and stealing parking spaces. Not that anyone would listen.