What kind of behavior does a culture expect of its citizenry and what unspoken rules does it adopt? Montaigne is most interested in this topic in the context of hierarchy and cultural expectations, but I’m going to start by discussing folkways.
When in Holland in 1991, I was faced with a cultural dilemma – I was riding on a train from Amsterdam to Utrecht, having paid the day before for a round trip. What I didn’t realize at the time was that these tickets were only good for one day, I didn’t have the right to use the second half of the ticket on the next day. I didn’t have enough money on hand to pay for another fare and my one remaining Eurail pass ticket was in Utrecht, so I was stuck.
When challenged by the conductor, I did what any good American would do – I lied about it. No, I bought this ticket today, there must have been some mistake at the ticket window. The conductor took my word for it, but the other passengers were none too pleased with the result. In a similar situation in the U.S., I’m sure fellow passengers would have ignored the controversy or even assumed that I might be right – stupid Amtrak, they can’t do anything right. But in Holland, the passengers glared at me as if I’d just stolen from them. (Incidentally, I was never able to use the final ticket of my Eurail pass, so I believe that my debt to the Dutch transportation system was fully paid.)
I was surprised by the reaction because the Dutch had been such warm, hospitable hosts for my three week visit up until then. And I’m in agreement with Montaigne that it was an overreaction on their part:
Some forms of politeness are bothersome; provided they are omitted with discretion and not out of ignorance, there is no loss of elegance. I have often seen men rude from an excess of politeness, men boring you with courtesies.
Apparently the Dutch are very serious about rail fare honor … just like Chicagoans are very serious about calling dibs after shoveling out a parking spot. After last week’s 20 or so inch snowfall, the city is pocked with graying mounds of snow and ice. Drive down any side street in the city and you’re sure to find a random collection of lawn chairs, table lamps and broken card tables blocking off parking spots. Dig out a spot in Chicago, and apparently it’s yours as long as the snow remains on the ground.
Personally, I think it’s a ridiculous custom. I can understand holding a spot for a day or two after a snowstorm, but we’re now five days removed from the big snow and the streets are still littered with tacky pieces of random furniture. If Chicagoans insist on allowing this kind of provincialism to take hold all winter, why not turn it into a revenue-creating ordinance, rather than a folkway? Why not require anyone wishing to hold dibs to buy city-supplied cones for a fee that you could use only on the same block as your residence? This would help the city close its budget gap – for a completely voluntary activity – and would keep all of the broken furniture off the street.
Chicagoans cling strongly to dibs – no mayoral candidate has dared speak against it – but the rules are hazy, no better defined than the rules of shotgun. (For example, is it acceptable to call shotgun as soon as you get outside, or must you have to see the car before calling? These technicalities have spurred parking lot debates among teenagers for decades.)
Montaigne’s advice, when it comes to your home and property, is to ignore all the customs and formalities and act as you wish:
In my home I have cut out all formalities. Does anyone take offence? What of it? It is better that I offend him once than myself all the time – that would amount to servitude for life! What is the use in fleeing from the slavery of the Court if we then go and drag it back to our lairs?