Sick Cities, Ill Manners by Alex Rhys-Taylor

On the Right (2005) by Jason

“London is deeply uncivilised now and public space has become uncouth. There has been a universal outbreak of incivility.”  

Boris Johnson, Shadow (When Education Secretary, before becoming the Mayor of London, and later Prime Minister.) 

From blogs, through tabloids to broadsheet op-eds, popular discourse about cities has long been strewn with treatise bemoaning the rudeness of twenty-first century cities life. We all know the complaints. Commuters pushing onto the train without letting that little old lady get off first, the little old lady having already suffered the solipsists who would rather stare at their phone than offer her a seat. Cyclists complaining about motorist’s lack of responsibility. Motorists complaining about cyclist’s over-abundance of righteous self-regard. Taxi drivers talking too much. People outside the pub over the road talk too loudly. Mary orders drinks but leaves the most elaborate cocktail to last. Ian leaves early and never buys a round. Urban life is seemingly peppered with incivility. 

In recent weeks, the implementation of new forms of behavioural governance in response to COVID-19 have seen stories of urban rudeness multiply, with urban etiquette reframed as the very crux upon which humanity’s survival depends. In some instances, these reports concern behaviours that, until recently, were relatively untrammelled by questions of propriety. The pace at which city dwellers walk through a park. The exuberance with which children play in the front garden. The positioning of pedestrians on the pavement and neighbours in communal stair wells.  In other instances, we have seen the amplification of consternation around perennial urban-etiquette-issues. Coughing. Queuing.  

Of course, there is some validity to the old grumbles about city dweller’s peculiar capacity for rudeness. Long before COVID-19 urban scholarship drew attention to the myriad moments of hostility, danger and aggression that peppered twentieth and twenty-first century cities. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone painted a picture of diminishing neighbourliness and the degradation of social bonds. Communitarians like Amitai Etzioni bemoaned an apparent retreat of urbanites into self-similar social groups. Geographers such as Nigel Thrift foregrounded, and some might say, naturalised and normalised the history of malice in the city, while Richard Sennett has long bemoaned of publicly orientated persona. Of course, sociologists have noticed some old manners being still being practiced as part of urban life; titles insisted upon, doors held open discriminately, ‘awkward’ topics of conversation ‘politely’ avoided. But these behavioural relics are notable insofar as they actively the reproduce class, racial and gendered inequality. So what hope is there in counting on the good manners of city dwellers in responding to the risks of the pandemic city, or mending the social fissures riven across it? 

Mole, A. (2012). Rudeness Attracts Tube Mice taken by @chipwood09

Well, yes, there is definitely a lurking incivility to a great many forms of ‘civility’. Many historical injustices live on through ‘good manners.’ And yes, twenty-first century cities are marred by cruelty and rudeness. It is hardly surprising. Twenty-first century cities have a greater diversity of humans living in greater densities, at ever-closer proximity while also having them gaze at each other across widening chasms in opportunity and wealth. On the surface, cities have long been a recipe for social and psychological chaos. If you believed their critics, today’s cities could not be less suited to withstanding a crisis. Yet, in focussing on the web of fissures creaking across the city’s social landscape, complaints about rudeness miss one of the most remarkable things about twenty-first century city life: At the very heart of each and every metropole’s daily functioning there has long remained an intricate set of subtle behaviours quietly affording mutual recognition, prompting empathy, enabling co-habitation and diminishing the potential for conflict. Manners. How else would cities have worked? 

It is precisely the deep-seated history of manners, the social fabric woven particularly through behaviours associated with mutual recognition, that have enabled city dwellers around the world to collectively respond to the pandemic crisis currently facing them. Often in spite of their government’s inaction. For, contrary to the view from outside, those living in large, dense cities implicitly understand the fact that that they are dependent on one another.  

This quiet interdependence is central to the understanding of cities presented in sociologist Erving Goffman’s oft-overlooked book Behaviour in Public PlacesIn this study, Goffman outlines a basic set of behavioural modifications that are specific to, indeed essential to, the collective existence of urbanites in the mid-twentieth century North American city. These, it should be noted, are not the ‘gate-keeping’ forms of etiquette that sociologists like Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu saw policing the boundaries of social class and status. Rather, these behaviours cut vertically across social strata and are more akin to the ‘manners’ that Hobbes had in mind when noting ‘those qualities of mankind that concern their living together in peace and unity’.   

What the behavioural modifications of ‘urban etiquette’ are, of course, has differed from city to city, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, even from individual to individual. Take pre-COVID-19 pedestrian etiquette as an example. In London, by virtue of the earliest escalator designs that directed commuters left off the end of the staircase, locals absolutely insist you stand on the right of escalators. This held whether you were going in, or coming out of a London Underground station, or going to the top floor of Selfridges. Obeyance to this injunction has been seen as beneficial to the smooth operation daily life, enforced with tuts and frowns if you choose to stand anywhere else. But, at the same time, Londoners barely care at all about which side of the pavement you walk on, opting instead for a collection of non-conscious glances, foot movements and gestures to communicate their way through busy crowds. Conversely, a ‘walk on the right’ rule abounds across North America ‘sidewalks’, with an additional requirement that you walk as fast as your heart will allow in New York. Escalator behaviour in any major US city, on the other hand, routinely results in anarchic congestion. There are many reasons for these differences. But putting these particulars aside, what is important is, wherever there is a city, there are also ‘good manners’. 

Is homo-urbanis commitment to basic manners strong enough to form the backbone of a society-wide non-pharmaceutical bio-social intervention? Probably. But the trick that municipal governance is reaching for – and not quite grasping in many instances – lies in realising that contra to the behaviourist doctrine, manners are more than just habituated ticks. Rather, etiquette has complex, culturally received connotations and has historically served a multiplicity of purposes; some more obvious than others. Manners such as covering one’s mouth when coughing, or not pissing in public, for instance are manifestations of ‘good manners’ that are obviously related to hygiene and public. But beyond hygiene, manners can also serve to mark social status or to flatter one’s superiors, facilitating sociality or affording individual recognition. Given this complexity, changing habits does not simply require nudging people away from their physical ticks. It requires populations shifting the meaning attached to specific actions and collectively re-evaluating the ‘ends’ to which their existing repertoire of manners were the ‘means.’  

Through this process, what was once polite can become rude and viscerally disturbing, and vice versa. In many instances, this is precisely what has been happening. The shaking of hands, for instance, once a staple of fraternal greetings is now a taboo. Taking three steps back as another speaks to you – once a display of parochial intolerance – can now be refigured as an act of generosity. In fact, in reconfiguring urban etiquette, urban populations have often responded faster and more effectively than many governments could mandate.  Even if it is only temporary, these shifts are a remarkable testament to the plasticity of the behavioural norms upon which urban life depends and allude to the malleable qualities that have given urban life its durability through successive economic crises, biological pandemics, revolution and war.  

Queue (2006) by

If changing habits and the meanings ascribed to ostensibly banal gestures is challenging for some, for others the transformation has been less difficult. And not for good reasons. For, as long as cities have been held together by a web of fragile associations, they have been riven by fractures. Particularly by cracks that follow the lines of class and race. In the past, these forms of social division were made real precisely through acts of rudeness and micro-aggression. The refusal of a handshake. The standing at a distance. The curling up of one’s nose at another’s presence. As such, for some, the new behavioural norms of the city during COVID-19 pandemic, the rendering ‘polite’ of what was once ‘rude’ has merely legitimised their hostility. That is to say, the bio-medical rationale for social distancing presented by the COVID-19 pandemic has provided cover for an assortment of pre-existing anti-social practices. Many manifestations of anti-urbane rudeness are now in fact hiding beneath the cloak of biological rationality. It is a task to ensure that the ulterior motives that can lie behind a fondness for ‘social distance’, are uncloaked; to make sure that the biological dangers haunting the 21st century city, are not muddled up with the constructs that have haunted the minds of xenophobes and snobs for centuries.  

But providing there is vigilance as to the abuses to which urban etiquette can be put to, then there is hope in city dwellers capacity to collectively contract new behaviours. City life has survived a great deal more than the threats currently posed to it. Not because of hyper adaptive ‘smart city’ technologies, or through the development of ‘sustainable’ interventions or the build-up of ‘resilience’. First and foremost, the durability of city life is grounded in the adaptability of city dweller’s collective behaviours, the cooperation they undertake to ensure they can all go about their own business.  From the glances that accompany movements across lanes of traffic, through stylised salutations that city-dwellers approached one another with, to the resolution of neighbourhood differences, a great many aspects of city life have long been mediated through urbanite’s carefully composed dispositions toward one another. Admittedly, for a long-time, manners have remained an under-acknowledged part of the ordering of urban life. It is only now that urbanists are realising just how critical they have been, and how crucial they will be in the future. As queuing etiquette becomes the pivot upon which matters of life and death seem to rest, we would probably do well to mind our manners in the most scholarly way possible. 

All images are unchanged and licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Dr Alex Rhys-Taylor is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.


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