One of the nice things about living in the age of chivalry, when men held doors open for women, women had dinner waiting on the table when their menfolk arrived home from a hard day at the office, and absolutely nobody didn't fall into a nice, simple, category, was that everyone knew their place, and knew exactly what that did, and did not entail. Everyone had simple rules to follow that meant that all social situations ran in a clockwork fashion, leaving all those involved happy and relaxed.
This is, of course, nonsense.
But it's very attractive nonsense. The reason why things like The Rules and The Game are very popular is that people really, really want their to be nice rules that can tell them what to do in order to be successful in relationship. Likewise, many, many business books purport to tell you what simple rules you can follow to make your business successful.
Most people, it seems, would like to know what simple rules they should follow in order to find success in complex situations. And while there is plenty of useful advice, the idea that there are any number of simple rules that will allow you to function perfectly in every social situation is pernicious, deceitful, harmful nonsense, peddled to people who are terrified of causing offence or ending up in a stressful social situation.
Take the article on the BBC yesterday Is That Woman Pregnant Or Fat. Not the title of a new hit quiz show hosted by Graham Norton, but instead covering the terror struck into the hearts of men who dare not give up their seats to a possibly pregnant woman in case she turns out to not be pregnant, but instead overweight.
"The social rules don't work any more!" they cry, "We might offend someone by assuming that they're pregnant!" The article rushes to reassure men with a list of 7 tips from pregnant women as to how you can recognise them. Apparently, though, even this isn't foolproof - mistakes might still be made! And, yes, they might. In fact, the article has a comment from someone who did so, and never went back to the aerobics class where they committed the terrible faux pas.
To which the only sensible reaction is "Get a grip." If you made a mistake, apologise, laugh briefly at your silliness, and move on. Thirty seconds later, the vast majority of people will no longer care. And if someone does, then that's their problem. We cannot live in a society in which people can never be offended. We do not have a homogenous monobloc of culture, in which all women (or men, or tall people, or geeks, or any other way of slicing up the population) can be assumed to like or dislike particular things. In fact, we never did, we just pretended we did, and the people whose thought and emotions were assumed gritted their teeth and got on with it. And now, instead, _everyone_ has to grit their teeth, and live with the fact that sometimes there will be socially awkward situations.
We'll just have to learn to deal with them.