Intolerance: Modern Manners

Let's be clear about one thing: manners are not about which way to 'pass the port' or where your stepsister should sit at dinner. Those are the rules of etiquette, and far from making anyone feel good, they are largely designed to exclude people and make most of us feel awkward. Rather manners are the principles by which we lubricate social intercourse and they are far more enduring across history, traditions and cultures than any specific rules of etiquette. The simple fact is that "please" and "thank you" cross all bounds of race, culture, gender and class. "Please" is polite however it's expressed and "thank you" is a gift in any language. The fundamentals of manners are universal. Manners, in fact, have become the new rock'n'roll. 'The most complained-about advert on TV ever' wasn't about sex or violence. It was the recent KFC ad featuring women in a call centre talking with their mouths full. And the complainants were not a bunch of old fuddy-duddies moaning on about how everybody used to be much better mannered in the old days; they were young parents saying: "We're trying to teach our children table manners and this doesn't help."
Kentucky Fried Chicken
For a whole variety of reasons we have a very strong taboo about bodily functions. And these parents know that being able to eat without offending others is one of the basics of living at ease with each other. But before anyone accuses me of being all 'Victor Meldrew' about the state of the country's social graces, let me say that manners are not necessarily worse than they were, just different. We have achieved a vast amount of personal freedom since the Second World War, particularly from the restrictions of class and gender. But in the process we have become selfish, more concerned with our own needs than those of others. And too often we have kept quiet about what constitutes good social behaviour, for fear of appearing judgmental. Which of us will challenge the litterbug, the 4x4 driver hogging the road, the commuter screeching into their mobile phone? We may have thrown over the old authorities - the men, the monarchs and the Maker - but it seems we do want a new social authority that allows us to live at ease with one other. Manners provide one way of doing that. They are the discipline of an easy life. So on that basis, 'The Scotsman Newspaper' set me some dilemmas. Here are some translations from the old rude into the new polite.
  1. When is it appropriate to call someone "sir" these days? And should we ask waiters to stop if they do? In Spain and France people call each other "sir" and "madam" all the time. It's routine and has a certain charming formality about it. In Britain, on the other hand, when not being used sarcastically ("I think sir will find..."), the terms have overtones of subservience. At the same time, for waiters and waitresses, they're handy because what would they call you otherwise? Asking them not to use sir or madam can just make them feel awkward for doing so in the first place. The whole point of manners, above everything else, is to set people at their ease. It is infuriating, for instance, when telesales people call you by your first name. Formality makes it far easier to manage the relationship and it doesn't have to be forelock-tugging. The assumption of intimacy is just fake. So call people 'sir' and 'madam' if they will appreciate it. Be quite formal with strangers; it makes life a little easier to deal with. And don't ask people not to call you 'sir' or 'madam' if it will embarrass them.
  2. Is it bad manners to open the bottle of wine that a guest brings on the same evening? An uncle of mine has said that it is, and always keeps them for later. The wine is a present. So accept it gracefully and open it. That way your guest will feel reassured that you appreciate it. Your uncle's so-called rule lacks grace. It looks like either you don't think the bottle your guest had brought is any good, or that it's so good you're keeping it for later. The only possible exception to this is if you are the kind of cook who chooses particular wines to go with the food. So, unless the guests have brought the same, just explain and keep the bottle they brought for another time. A word of caution: never take wine to a dinner party in France. It verges on the insulting because they think they know more about it than you do. Take flowers instead.
  3. I am a woman who frequently attends business lunches. If I arrive first and am seated when my companions turn up, how should I greet them? May I remain seated but extend my hand for shaking, or should I get up? It's not about whether you're a man or a woman. Drag yourself into the new century where equality is the principle. So, boy or girl, stand up when you meet a stranger in that kind of situation. Why? Because that way you're showing just a symbolic hint of interest in the fact that they're there. Acknowledgement between strangers is one of the key principles of manners.
  4. A friend has just had a baby, and I'd like to send my congratulations without intruding on what is obviously a very intimate time for her and her family. We've never sent each other a card in our lives, but sending a text message seems inappropriate. What should I do? The question is, what will she appreciate most? There's no abstract rule that privileges cards over texts. They're just different ways of communicating. She's your friend, so what will give her the most pleasure? I suggest neither a text nor a card, but 1_000 disposable nappies.
  5. A dear friend has offered to put me up when I visit his hometown. I happen to know that he is going through tough times financially and would like to help him out. But if I offer him money for letting me stay, he'll be offended. I will, of course, pitch in with household chores and provide groceries and treats such as flowers, but is there any tactful way to explain that I'd have been paying for a hotel anyway, so he might as well get the cash? Your consideration in thinking about not embarrassing him in any way is halfway up the ladder of good manners in the first place. It would probably mortify him if you offered to pay directly. And anyway what costs when you stay is food and petrol and things like that. So pay for as much as you can. At the core of friendship is a long cycle of reciprocity. These things work out over a lifetime. And it's not about money. If you've got a bit more than him right now, pitch in a bit more.
  6. A friend of mine has gone to a corner of eastern Europe to set up his own property business, and I wish him all the best. But I, among others, receive frequent despatches about his progress, and reams of photographs in which I have no interest. This seems part of a modern-day obsession to e-mail people back home every cough and spit of your latest trip round the world. E-mail is not an alternative to fly-posting. I call it litter-writing. Opening your inbox now is like opening your front door and the dustman emptying your bin into the hall. Copying everybody in on every e-mail is just thoughtless, and if manners are to do with self-consciously thinking about others, then we cannot allow e-mail's electronic ease to become a one-click lack of thoughtfulness. The difficulty is how to tell your friend you don't want spam without upsetting them. It's also far more tricky to do when they've gone round the world to save the Cayapo Indians or find a cure for cancer or something like that. Nonetheless you can, if you feel you know him well enough, write and say you find it very difficult to take in all the information he's been sending and while it's great to hear from him, might it be possible to send you a digest once or twice a year with the really important events? You might add that your e-mail load is very heavy, and you want to pay his news some attention when it arrives, which you honestly can't when it is so frequent. (You can hear me struggling here, but give it a go.) Alternatively, just bin them.
Mr.Simon Fanshawe appears at 'The Edinburgh International Book Festival' on 2005-08-19 (Fr) at 10:30. Telephone (0131) 624 5050. 'The Done Thing: Negotiating The Minefield of Modern Manners' a book by Simon Fanshawe is presently available on-line at Amazon 'Simon says, manners matter', Simon Fanshawe, The Scotsman, 2005-08-17 We


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone is rude these days because of technology. I get emails I didn't ask for and which I find annoying and occasionally thoughtlessly offensive. I get spam, junk mail, door-to-door salesmen and telesales calls butting in to my life. People feel free to take mobile telephone calls during conversations! I even see people on a night out thumbing SMS messages or downloading ringtones.

Manners are gone forever, self-service, pay by switch (Chip and PIN) before eating, Holiday flight delays, cheaper deals on-line, I'm alright jack ...all of which is the modern way!!!!

I don't see it getting better unless people throw away their XBOXES, laptops and mobiles forever!

8/22/2005 12:03:00 am  

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