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Etiquette for economists

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10 March 06.

Today's recommendation, for my usual audience of mathematicians and social scientists: Miss manners (RSS). No, not because of the usual reasons that no doubt sprung to your head when you saw mathematician and manners in the same sentence. I recommend the etiquette column because it is a paragon of social science analysis.

The first rule you need to bear in mind when reading on etiquette is that none of etiquette is arbitrary. Take this as axiomatic; if you believe that a rule violates this axiom, then you don't understand the rule and should try again.

The problem of etiquette is exactly the problem of law, economics, and the social sciences in general: given that people have competing objectives and perceptions which are often in conflict, what is the mechanism that minimizes conflict and maximizes social benefit? The problem is more difficult than most economic problems because etiquette is not law, and therefore not everyone is following it. I.e., we need a mechanism which is a Nash equilibrium for an asymmetric game where one side is playing the rule of etiquette and the other side may or may not be. This can be orders of magnitude more difficult than the symmetric problems with which we economists satisfy ourselves.

Etiquette columns are fun because each summarizes a conflict and its resolution, often in a clever-in-a-good-way manner. Miss Manners (aka Ms JM of Washington, Columbia) does an especially good job of keeping upbeat in the face of conflict after conflict.

I picked up a copy of Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (BUY!), wherein she explains her own frustration with the misunderstanding of etiquette:

"If Miss Manners hears any more contemptuous description of etiquette as being a matter of 'knowing which fork to use,' she will run amok with a sharp weapon, and the people she attacks will all be left with four tiny holes in their throats as if they had been the victims of twin vampires." [p 119]

Of course, this doesn't keep her from spending six pages on the question. We have to let that slide, along with the occasional letter in the way of "I was reading a historical novel that described an odd item. What is it?" We must allow Miss Manners her turn-of-the-last-century fetishes. And I find the third person tone amusing---some of our more trendy columnists below emulate it directly---but some tire of it.

Many of her columns are about simple restraint. Don't gossip, don't go around pointing out other people's errors of etiquette, don't indulge in rudeness in response to rudeness. In the context of economic jargon, it's a simple question of internalizing externalities, reminding the reader to time-discount appropriately, and establishing default norms to minimize cognitive effort regarding which fork to use so people can focus on the important things. Such principles seem simple enough, but like the principle of utility maximization, there are endless applications and variants.

She also frequently receives and prints letters in the way of "Dear Miss Manners: I was an arse, but I have a justification. Back me up here—I was right, right?" Those columns rather literally write themselves.

And then there's the clever reply. Economists eat this stuff up: given a system of rules, how can one elegantly achieve some seemingly difficult goal?
As for the rudeness of others, Miss Manners finds that is conquered by politeness. For example, a gentleman of Miss Manners' acquaintance dislikes being honked at by impatient drivers for not starting his automobile quickly enough when a traffic signal turns to green. Instead of honking back, however, he puts on his emergency brake, emerges from his car, presents himself to the honker in the vehicle behind, and inquires gently, "Did you summon me?" [p 4]

Many inquiries are of the form 'this used to be the standard form of etiquette, but it's obsolete now, right?' These letters are the most informative, because they are another way of saying 'I think this rule is arbitrary', which, as above, is false for any sustainable rule of etiquette. There is a limited set of rules that are obsolete, primarily because we no longer have a fairer sex whose members do nothing but bear children and swoon from time to time. But determining whether a rule is indeed no longer valid requires an honest knowledge of why it was in place before, rather than a dismissive 'oh, how Victorian'.

One or two pals of mine have pointed out that different societies have different manners. I'm no stranger to the idea of multiple equilibria, and there are always surface issues like shaking with the left hand or showing the soles of one's feet, but I can think of no cultures where fundamentals of interpersonal relations, general courtesy and some set of default social norms that people can fall back on, are not observed. The reader is invited to leave examples for discussion in the comments.

Why recommend Miss Manners over more sensational advisors? It is the difference between an etiquette column, focused on balancing competing goals to form a society, and an advice column, focused on helping people to think more clearly where irrationality sometimes prevails. 'Dear sex advice columnist: I was thinking with my crotch and now I'm miserable. What should I do?' The advice column presents interesting stories and solutions, but is a different animal from the etiquette column. There are also a few people who do etiquette for the oversexed. [BUY!]

Further, many such columns work hard on maintaining the sensationalness by focusing on surface novelty of the `I recently became a man, and am seeking someone who recently became a woman, but I'm running into difficulty' variety, instead of the never-changing basics of human relations. Miss Manners' advice works for boys, girls, and everybody in between. E.g., "It is the essence of social flirting that no one—not even the participants—should be positive that anything more was intended than simple enjoyment and admiration." [p 276] Such advice will work as well in the tea room as in the dungeon.

author ={Judith Martin},
title = {{M}iss {M}anners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior},
year = 1982,
publiser = {Atheneum},
nb = {There's an updated version, but it's not what I'm citing above.}

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Replies: A comment

on Wednesday, March 15th, Ms. ALS of San Diego said

i want more music posts.

i just re-read all of the ones you wrote, and feel like I've just finished a wonderful, but too-small meal.

still hungry, yo.

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