The movie theatre near my home has, consistent with recent trends, ripped out the old stadium chairs and replaced them with reserved seating in the form of luxury recliners with trays and generous drink holders. The theatre also provides dine-in services; pressing a call button summons a waiter to your seat. In the dark, servers scurry about delivering food and cocktail orders. Despite the significant reduction in seats, the addition of food and alcohol more than make up for any revenue losses while the reserved seating makes selling movie tickets online a more efficient, if not elegant process.
Yesterday, my husband and I went to go see Rocketman at this theatre. I purchased our tickets online earlier in the week to secure good seats. We arrived early and when we walked into our particular auditorium, I noticed there were people sitting in our seats. Their trays were heavy with plates of food and large drinks. I approached them with my cell phone and gently suggested that they were in our seats. As the woman searched her bag for her phone, an usher appeared and tried to assist. When the woman produced her digital ticket on her phone, I quickly realized that she and her companion were in the wrong auditorium. Their movie had already started over a half hour earlier. The usher then stepped in to help resolve their problem and clear them out of our seats. While the aisles are generous to accommodate the new recliners, we moved to the back of the theatre to allow them to collect their things.
The woman walked quickly past us to the exit. She never made eye contact or any kind of apology. The man she was with, got uncomfortably close to my husband and with an eerie grin said, “Alrighty then!” My husband made no reply as we watched him follow the woman and the usher.
Etiquette is a culture’s crib of behaviors, customs, and words used to make it easier and more pleasant for humans to live with or near each other. By definition, it is designed to reduce awkwardness and embarrassment and smooth human relations. In modern practice, however, the topic of etiquette is rarely discussed, except in connection with formal ceremonies when we finally dust off Emily Post’s book and attempt to figure out how to properly use stationery or present our prom date with a corsage.
Manners feature prominently in my two favorite works of Jane Austen: Emma and Pride & Prejudice. Austen loved to contrast “country manners” with those of “Town” as well as the attitudes characteristic of the inhabitants of both worlds. Country dwellers seem to tolerate the annoying habits and idiosyncrasies of neighbors, maintaining an optimistic attitude – there is little to no variety in their social sphere, so they must make the best of their limited social circle – a potent motivation to maintain good relations with neighbors. Country manners seem to come from a long-term worldview. The city resident however, must stay busy and find diversions in order to ignore others – providing a polite cushion between themselves and all the other people, mostly strangers, who live and work within close proximity. City life is full of fleeting moments and brief, often unique interactions. Short-term and efficient navigation are the techniques of successful city living.
Etiquette, and the lighthearted, cheerful country manners in both of these Austen novels are there with good reason. Human beings behave erratically, even violently when embarrassed. Though they were written little more than 200 years ago, the differences in polite behavior are still present. You notice the cold restaurant hostess has a smile that touches her eyes when speaking with coworkers she spends many hours with, while the small town church members spend forty minutes prior to the service to greet and visit with other parishioners.
Despite some similarities, our standards of etiquette in 2019 are no longer standard, nor have they kept up with social changes; we are thus ill-prepared for these new interactions. Going to the movies was something I once loved, as was going out for a drink or a meal. How does one minimize embarrassment when someone mistakenly ends up in the wrong theatre? How does one respond to a dining companion whose attention is on their phone? How should someone in the hospitality industry make customers feel welcome when technology is further reducing the need for human interaction?
My country manners seem regrettably mismatched for life in Silicon Valley, where an honest mistake means results in aggressive behavior without a whisper of apology.