Manners Maketh The Nation
You know you are getting old when you think policemen should have a note from their mum saying they’re allowed out, when you want to ask the estate agent which school she’s skiving from and when you realise that you are unlikely to see another Prime Minister who is older than you are.
But what really emphasises your advancing years is the way you react to modern manners…
Women in Chelsea tractors who nick the parking space you’re approaching, and give you the finger if you protest, parents who swear at school sports day, adolescents who text during meals – now that I’ve reached middle age, such lapses of civilised behaviour really bend me out of shape… As do friends who email at midday to cry off from lunch, godchildren who don’t bother with thank-you letters, City types who let pregnant women stand on the Tube.
What has happened? We Brits were once admired across the globe for our politeness. Our education system was the envy of the world for producing ladies and gentlemen with impeccable manners.
Foreigners would joke that the English were so urbane they could tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually looked forward to the trip. We could be relied upon to dress elegantly, to use a butter knife (even when dining alone) and to wait patiently in queues.
Okay, maybe I’ve watched too many 1950s films in pursuit of a disappearing idyll, but there’s no denying that British manners have deteriorated. Visit any market town on a Saturday night, use public transport or ask for assistance in a shop and chances are you’ll find vomit on the pavement, loud and intrusive conversations on mobile phones and service with a snarl.
Nowadays, men go to weddings with three days’ stubble, people eat smelly takeaways on buses and cold callers interrupt your evening and then have the nerve to use your first name as if they’re your best friend.
Not even the workplace – indeed, not even the interview room – is safe from breaches of etiquette. I once had to interview a woman who plonked her rucksack on my desk before I’d even offered her a seat. I didn’t offer her the job.
I wonder if manners are better in those countries where they have both a formal and a familiar word for ‘you’? Certainly, a German friend married to an Englishman finds German airline staff far more gracious than their British counterparts and a French friend living in London complains that while British supermarket cashiers just ask you for your club card, in France they say ‘Bonjour, Madame’ and chat.
I’m not fussing about how you hold your knife, whether you call your plumber Duane or Mr Pipe, or which way you pass the port. It’s not about headed stationery or saying ‘loo’ rather than ‘toilet’; in fact paying excessive attention to these social proprieties is impolite in itself, if it intimidates others. Compare, for instance, the prince who drank his soup from the bowl (in order to make a beggar feel comfortable at the royal table) with the Mitford sisters, who coined the socially divisive terms U and non-U to denote behaviour befitting the Upper class. One sister even sent letters home from America by surface rather than airmail, because hurrying was for plebs…
Admittedly, the unflinching deference of the past needed to be revised – incompetent doctors, lazy lawyers or abusive priests are now rightly held to account in ways that were unthinkable 50 years ago – but you only have to hear a drunken yob hurling abuse at a police officer to realise that our esteem for authority has been largely replaced by contempt.
Good manners matter because they are the glue that binds us together. Consideration for other people oils the wheels of friendship, business and politics, whatever your walk of life. A nurse who smiles politely inspires more confidence than one who doesn’t look up from her clipboard. Someone able to apologise for a tactless remark will retain a friend. Children who respect teachers will understand office hierarchies later on.
So, teach ’em young. After all, as long ago as the 4th century BC, Plato was complaining that youngsters ‘disrespect their elders, disobey their parents and riot in the streets’ and in 1530 the Dutch scholar Erasmus found it necessary to compile a manual on etiquette for young people, in which he explained that ‘the key to good manners is that you should readily ignore the faults of others, but avoid falling short yourself’ – advice that we Brits could use, whatever our age.