Museum Selfie-ishness


Recently, at the Museum of Modern Art with my niece, I found something unexpected blocking my favorite Van Gogh: a young woman standing with her back six inches away from the canvas, taking a "selfie." As we strolled around the galleries, I spotted more of them. Selfies in front of the Jackson Pollack. Selfies in front of Monet's Water Lilies. Selfies in front of Campbell's Soup Cans. Like most technology-driven social phenomena, museum selfies seemed to have mushroomed overnight.

Until recently, the only digital annoyance I remember having to contend with in art museums was other visitors photographing the art at close range. Many museums allow non-flash photography, and it's true that if a lot of people are taking pictures it can obstruct others' view of the painting. Still, why shouldn't someone be able to photograph a work of art they love -- in order to enjoy and remember their museum experience later? Obsessive photo-taking might be somewhat self-centered in that there is no consideration about how it is impinging on the sight lines of others around them. On the other hand, the desire to capture the beautiful images of the art makes it ultimately a forgivable practice.

However, the narcissistic knee-jerk act of the museum selfie is in a whole other category. Now, not only can't we see the art because someone is standing right in front of it, we are forced to look at the selfie subject(s) instead of the art. The art is now the background to the selfie-taker--as if it were wallpaper, or the view from the Empire State Building. The implication is that the work of art is secondary in importance to the person in front of it. Obviously it's your choice if you want to have Van Gogh's The Starry Night as your own personal backdrop (although I myself do not have that kind of hubris). The problem is that you are changing the art experience of those around you. Even when selfie-takers are not completely obscuring the art, it's psychologically impossible to ignore it when someone is making themselves the subject; it's hard to look past them at the painting. It is just like trying not to listen to someone talking on his cell on the train.

It's difficult to say which is worse: The fact that we seem to need to document every moment of our existence or the need to put ourselves at the center of everything. (The selfie has become such a part of our culture that it was even the title of a TV show on ABC.) Because digital photos are free and easily deletable images we are in the habit of taking them without much thought. In museums, we sense we are having an important experience. We see beautiful art. We are moved, excited. The contemporary conditioned response to this emotion is to whip out the camera. And it is also highly contagious behavior. Once you see someone else doing it, you figure: Wait, maybe this would make a cool picture--me in front of a famous painting. This would be great on Instagram.

It's pretty hard to fight the sweeping tide of cellphone selfie-taking per se. Besides, selfies are not all bad. In the old days when you traveled to Paris, you would have to ask a passerby to take a photo of your and your friend in front of the Eiffel Tower. Now you can just take it yourself. Isn't this convenience an improvement? I have also seen some wonderful museum selfie photos that are a playful or ironic statement on the art: for example, a picture of person standing to the side of the painting imitating the pose of the subject in the painting, or a photo where it looks as if the person depicted in the painting is actually holding the phone. This kind of art riffing--which some people might find offensive--demonstrates a creativity I can't really object to.

What I will object to is the "selfie stick," a device for extending the cellphone an additional arm's-length away. Even though I caught many people taking selfies in the museum, thank god I did not see anyone using one of these relatively new gadgets. (Is it just me, or does the term "selfie stick" sound pornographic?) The sticks are already in wide use in Asia, which is a sign they will probably be trending here very soon. What these accessories will mean in museums, of course, is an even more hindered view of the art, as using the stick allows for more people to fit into a group selfie-portrait.

So there I was, at MOMA with my niece, frowning inwardly and eschewing the whole self-involved, self-aggrandizing selfie trend. Until - er... guess what? My niece suddenly whipped out her iPhone to snap a selfie of us standing in front of a Gauguin. Did I resist? Did I take a stand against the decline of respect for great art? Or did I lean my head happily against my niece's, open my eyes wide and smile gaily?

Like I said, these technology things are contagious.

Beware My Derriere: The Etiquette or Sitting Down at the Theater

Every time I go to the theater and I find myself having to enter a row where there are people already seated, I experience the same moment of indecision: "How do I navigate this? Which way do I go in -- facing the stage or facing the people?" Most people I know go in with their backs to the others, but this always seems wrong to me. Especially if my row-mates remain seated as I am squeezing in, I am acutely aware of my butt having to travel by embarrassingly close to their faces. And if I should happen to step on someone's toes or bump their knees in the process, it is difficult to apologize over my shoulder.
However, after researching various "official" opinions as well as conducting an informal canvass of all my theater-going friends, it is clear that although European custom requires the theater or movie-going patron to enter the row while facing the back of the theater, the accepted practice in the United States is to go in facing the stage. In fact, both Emily Post (in her Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, 1922) and Amy Vanderbilt (in Amy Vanderbilt's New Complete Book of Etiquette, 1963) declared this back-to-face sliding-by operation to be absolutely the proper etiquette.
But even among Americans there are varying opinions, many of them adamant. One etiquette expert I came across professed the proper form to be that men go in facing the back of the theater, while women go in the opposite way -- a piece of etiquette-ology I find fairly bizarre. I mean, since gentlemen's feet are generally bigger than ladies', and ladies' rears are generally bigger than gentlemen's, if you were going to make a gender differentiation I would think it would be the gentleman going in facing front, and the lady facing the back of the theater. But either way it would look like some kind of weird line dance.
The argument for facing the stage is that it is more efficacious, because you can bend forward a little and slide in while pressing as far as possible into the seats in front of you. This way you are less likely to step on anyone's feet, and also you can preserve the illusion that you are not inches away from people, as you can't see them. Moreover, most people feel the close proximity makes it too embarrassing to pass by front-to-front. It's like facing someone in an elevator. "It's too intimate," etiquette maven Letitia Baldridge once wrote. "It looks like they are going to kiss."
I don't know about kissing but I almost always vote for conversational contact. (They don't call me "Miss Mingle" for nothing.) The rationale for facing people while making your way to your seat is just that--that you are able to interact with the people whom you are incommoding. It is considered good manners to thank people (or apologize, if you are coming in on the late side) as you inch by them, and it is much harder to thank people if you go by backwards; you cannot make eye contact easily. And of course there is the avoidance of the aforementioned butt-in-the-face issue (which I admittedly may be overly sensitive about, as I happen to have a particularly protrusive posterior.) Sometimes your course of action will depend on whether or not the row stands up for you (which if they are well-bred they will do). In that case, you can even go in slightly sideways.
Every decision regarding proper etiquette is made up of one part not discomforting others, and one part not looking like an idiot. What the theater seating question really comes down to is a choice between two variations of feeling awkward. I think for me, the point at which I started gravitating towards the face-to-face method happened a few years ago when, going in backwards along with the others in my party who were doing the same, I stumbled over someone's umbrella lying on the floor and ended up sitting in the lap of a rather portly man.
This was bad enough; but unfortunately, in my surprise and embarrassment, instead of saying, "I'm so sorry," I said "Thank you" -- which were the words that were on the tip of my tongue, since I had been murmuring them to everyone else in the row I was passing.
"Oh, no, thank you," the man laughed in response.

Over-Thanking It

These days everyone seems to be bemoaning the disappearance of courtesy. It's certainly arguable that -- in large part -- manners have been discarded along with land lines and typewriters and the milkman. I'm not sure about the milkman, but I know the loss of social niceties is, in general, not a good thing.

To have good manners is to consider the emotional well-being of someone besides yourself, which is why I have often emphasized the importance of saying "thank you" to anyone who has done something for you. But is it possible to thank someone too much?

Recently a friend of mine was invited to a house party on Cape Cod. (Well, it wasn't so much that she was invited as that she invited herself to tag along with mutual friends who were already going -- which is probably why she went a little overboard on the gratitude). To begin with, she brought two bottles of wine, as well as a "hostess gift" consisting of a large basket of gourmet cheeses, jams and syrups. After all, she reasoned, she was staying for several days, so a "pre- thank you" gesture was completely appropriate, right? During the three-day weekend, she made sure that whenever there was a shopping expedition, she chipped in. The morning of her departure, at breakfast, she expounded in an effusive manner about what a wonderful time she had had. As she was walking to the car to go home she thanked them again.

The night she got back to New York, she emailed some photos taken on the beach, along with "many, many thanks." The next day she snail-mailed what she had been taught by her grandmother was the obligatory hand-written thank-you note, in which she penned several more lines about how fabulous the weekend party was.

A few days later I happened to be chatting with her, and she told me she could not shake the disconcerting feeling that she had gone overboard on the thanking. When I heard the whole story, I had to agree.

When you thank someone over and over (and over), the "thankee" can begin to think something is required of him in return. He might begin to feel pressure to respond with, "It's nothing, don't worry about it," or "It's fine, I loved having you." The fact is, over-thanking can negate the whole purpose of a thank-you: to make the other person feel good. Instead, you may make him feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.

Excessive gratitude can also cause an imbalance of power in the relationship; it can make the thankee question his own generosity. He may wonder, Gosh, I must have done something extraordinary to have this person thanking me so excessively. Maybe I shouldn't have been quite that generous. Over-thanking is in the same category as saying "I'm sorry" too much. It's potentially unsettling.

Of course, modern technology tends to inspire an overabundance of knee-jerk gratitude. As Nick Bilton pointed out in his New York Times blog in March, there are a lot of people dashing off unnecessary thank-you emails. (Never mind automatic-reply Twitter DM thank-yous -- that's a whole other level of inanity). For example, an office worker might send a group email to twenty people, attaching the minutes to a meeting, to which fifteen people press Reply (or worse yet, the dreaded Reply All) simply to write "Thank you." Multiply that by several times a day and you end up with a LOT of unnecessary emails to open. Most people feel that this is a waste of time; instead of being polite, you are actually annoying. Not only that, but when you overuse a word it tends to lose its meaning -- then when gratefulness is really appropriate, the expression of it can ring hollow.

However, it's not just thoughtless individuals causing the problem. I know someone who is the opposite of thoughtless. He is so gallant that he routinely sends a thank-you note in response to receiving a thank-you note (true story, I swear). I told him this practice reminded me of when I was seven. I used to walk my friend Beth home from our playdate, whereupon she would turn around and walk me home, then I'd walk her home again...The goodbyes took longer than the actual playdate. Where does this kind of thing end? Unchecked, thank-you madness can also last forever, an interactive loop from which you can never escape.

What is the correct amount of thanking? Obviously it depends on the situation. Opening the door for someone engenders one kind of thank-you; having someone stay in your house for the week another. Old friends may not say "thank you" at all. Strangers may thank each other a lot. (I counted my thank-yous yesterday when I was in the bank: It was a whopping five). But ordinarily, unless someone has given you one of their kidneys, I'd say one or two sincere thank-yous is really thanks enough.

So did you enjoy this piece? If so, you don't have to thank me.