Most anti-etiquette complaints we hear consist of one main sentiment: “proper etiquette is fake rules.” The idea is that these are false barriers we’ve set up for ourselves, things that don’t come naturally. It wouldn’t occur to us to write thank you notes or keep to the right of staircases if it hadn’t been drilled into our heads from a young age, and who the hell made these rules anyway, and fuck you I’ll do what I want! And while we certainly understand how frustrating remembering complicated forms of address can be, most of these rules are not completely arbitrary. There is actually a science behind etiquette.
In Charles Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions, the scientist explores human facial expressions. He wrote, “Whenever the same movements of the features or body express the same emotions in several distinct races of man, we may infer with much probability, that such expressions are true ones,—that is, are innate or instinctive.” After contacting numerous scientists around the world, he discovered the expressions for emotions like anger and disgust were nearly universal. Author Valerie Curtis expanded on this idea in her book Don’t Look, Don’t Touch: The Science Behind Revulsion, arguing that humans are largely disgusted by the same things, and our behaviors of manners and etiquette were built out of a desire to avoid the disgusting. Those who made an effort to value the comfort (and often times, health and hygiene) of themselves and others were rewarded in society, while those who put others in danger were rejected, or just died of the plague. She writes:
As group sizes grew from related individuals, to clans, to whole tribes who came together for joint enterprises…the problem of cooperation with unrelated others became more serious. Individuals who tried to get the benefits of social life without paying their share of the costs could derail the whole cooperative enterprise. Humans became adept at looking for clues to who was likely to cooperate and who was not. Manners provided an indicator…Manners are thus a signal of social intent.
She also notes that manners must have a cost to produce, otherwise “anyone could fake them.” Some of our most basic etiquette rules come from this idea: being careful with your bodily fluids, keeping clean so as not to contaminate shared food, considering the needs and safety of others before acting. Arbitrary social conventions like keeping your elbows on or off the table or methods of greeting come and go, but the core goal remains: etiquette is how we’ve evolved to live together.
We’re flawed creatures, of course, and a good idea about rewarding thoughtfulness in others can often turn into shaming someone if they mistakenly set the table with the fork on the right. But the next time you get frustrated with etiquette, remember there’s a reason you get grossed out when someone burps in front of you.