It’s not a coincidence that words for people who understand good etiquette – polite, urbane – are derived from classical words for cities (Greek polis, Latin urbs).

Where once etiquette was thought of primarily as of as something that was aristocratic and applied to private life (imagine Downton Abbey), I’d like to draw more attention to the public etiquette that applies to public life, and start a discussion about how it has been influenced by the experience of everyday people living in cities.

All societies in every part of the world have rules of behaviour, whether the societies are rural or urban, and whatever their form of social and political organization and types of technology. Urban public etiquette is simply one of these sets of rules.

Some of these rules become formalized into laws and bylaws and are enforced by authorities (although these laws are most effective when also backed up by social expectation). But “etiquette” describes that vast range of rules, generally more fluid, ambiguous and changeable, that are not formalized but rather simply learned and enforced through social pressure and expectation.

Since ancient times, cities have been where many different kinds of people are concentrated together. They are full of people who one does not know, and what’s more, these unknown people may come from a wide variety of locations and have different habits, beliefs, and cultures. Often, cities receive a constant stream of newcomers, whether immigrants from the countryside or from other nations, and visitors for business or pleasure. And all of these people are crowded together in the limited public spaces between buildings as they go about their business.

To operate successfully, people in cities need to develop and adopt rules of behaviour that they all understand and follow – and teach to newcomers. These rules are designed to avoid complications, delays, misunderstandings and conflict as people go about life. But, more importantly, they also bring out the positive benefits of city life. They make it easier for strangers to conduct business with each other and learn from each other, and for neighbours to live together in harmony and maintain the public spaces they share as welcoming spaces in which to form community.

Some of the distinguishing features of urban life shape the rules of urban public etiquette. For example:

  • Cities are crowded. So they need public etiquette to govern basic physical issues like sharing space – e.g. don’t block the door of a transit vehicle, do open the door for someone approaching.
  • Cities have limited public spaces. These have to be well kept so everyone can enjoy them. So cities need etiquette to govern caring for shared spaces – e.g. don’t litter, do pick up after your dog.
  • Cities are full of strangers. Most people you see in public are people you don’t know, and quite possibly come from a different background. So city public etiquette can give guidance for interacting with strangers – unspoken communication, like using hand gestures to wave people through – or spoken communication, like when to talk to strangers (or not), and how to express your needs without creating conflict.

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