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An Etiquette Guide for the Imperfect Among Us

1:05 PM, Jul 18, 2014 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Evolutionary psychology is the grid on which Amy lays out her general theories about why we should treat each other well and why we need to. She argues that the level of widespread day-to-day rudeness we experience today is a fairly recent development, concomitant with our living in large urban societies instead of the hunter-gatherer bands and small villages of the Stone Age in which human beings evolved. Back then, it was risky for people to be piggish and selfish; they could be expelled from the group and starve to death. Today’s mass society gives the protection of anonymity to even the most outrageous behavior, Amy argues—so we get more of it.

I myself am not so sure that people 20,000 years ago were any more altruistic than they are now. It must be my pessimistic view of human nature, because I’ll bet that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers found plenty of ways to get away with making their neighbors miserable. But that’s beside the point. Amy argues that in order to make up for our being forced to rub up against strangers during most of our waking hours, we should cultivate empathy for their plights and respect for their dignity—and treat them as well as we can. That is the essence of good manners for both civilized and barbarous times.

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