“Good manners will open doors that the best education cannot.”
These were the words of Clarence Thomas, an American Supreme Court Judge. This quote, of course, extols the virtues of etiquette, seen by many as a dying art. But why exactly do people have so little regard for having good manners these days? Few schools actually teach about manners and etiquette these days, but is that such a bad thing?
Etiquette expert William Hanson, of The English Manner, would argue that yes, this is indeed a problem. “Schools do not have the budgets or time to teach such things, sadly,” he said. “The parents do not have a clue what they should be teaching, or indeed that they should be teaching it at all, and so children are growing up without basic manners or etiquette.” There are certainly many people who would agree with this. However, if you admit your own interest in traditional etiquette, you’re perceived as old-fashioned or, dare I say it, ‘quirky’. As The Middle Class Handbook’s Dan Holliday puts it: “Many people think of manners as a trivial, pretentious concern, but interestingly if you ask them about ‘respect’, they’d say that was an important and big issue.”
When many people think about etiquette, it’s not basic manners they seem to have a problem with. Teaching children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and reminding them how to behave in public is fine, right? That’s just politeness. But it seems to be when we get to the less obviously polite acts of etiquette that people start to lose interest. Why must we take our cutlery from the outside and work in? Why must we keep our elbows off the table when we eat? But then, surely we could consider all acts of politeness arbitrary? Why has ‘please’ retained its prestige, whereas most of us wouldn’t bat an eyelid if somebody failed to cut their fruit with a knife and fork at the end of a meal (as traditional British etiquette requires)?
The way Britons as a whole behave has changed, says Hanson, since the death of Princess Diana in 1997. It was the first time public mourning was seen as acceptable, and often encouraged, with televised scenes of mass sadness screened for weeks following her death. He also believes that international travel and interaction with other cultures has made us more tactile and open. “However, we still are quite reserved in comparison to other European nations or America, although less reserved than 50 years ago,” said Hanson.
Despite the general downward trend over time in etiquette training, that doesn’t mean that the interest in behaving ‘properly’ (according to tradition) has fizzled out completely. Hanson cites the Royal Wedding and the popularity of TV shows such as Downton Abbey as reasons people have been coming to him for his etiquette training services at The English Manner. “People now realise that good manners are vital and girls now (thankfully) want to be like Kate Middleton, rather than Katie Price!”
Even people who think that etiquette is irrelevant in 2013 have their opinions on the way people behave socially, and the majority of people can easily identify desirable and undesirable ways to behave, whether or not they would go as far to call that behaviour right or wrong. As Holliday says: “Increasingly people behave in their public and social life in the way they behave in their private life, e.g. putting their make-up on when on the train.” I’m sure everyone can think of a time they’ve experienced someone with less than impeccable manners on public transport, whatever it is they consider to be impolite. For instance, I would find the above situation acceptable, but another of his examples of etiquette crime, having a loud phone conversation on a crowded train, would certainly be rude in most people’s books. “And they’re increasingly defensive, expecting to carry on exactly as they want regardless of how it affects people around them.”
So, where on Earth do you start if you want to polish up your people skills and buff your behaviour? Hanson has an excellent rule of thumb to follow: “Good manners are self-less, not self-ish.” A lot of people seem to lack interest in etiquette because they think it’s about learning lots of fussy rules and interacting in a stiff, formal manner. This really isn’t the case. Etiquette training has come a long way, and there is no need to strip away every fibre of personality in the name of manners. Instead, as Hanson says, it is about having respect for others. Only the most old-fashioned, conservative etiquette enthusiasts will tut if you cut a bread roll, rather than breaking off small pieces. Real, modern etiquette is about respecting others and behaving in a socially appropriate way, and about promoting harmony in society. ”There are far too many arrogant so-and-sos in today’s society, who need to wake up and realise that life is not just about them,’ says Hanson… and he has a point.
Learning about etiquette needn’t be an intimidating experience. Of course, you could send your children off to finishing school to teach them the important life lessons, but that’s not the only way to do it. One of my favourite books is the Debrett’s Etiquette for Girls, and there is an excellent male equivalent, along with some general guides to etiquette which make for very easy reading. There are also forums dedicated to resolving etiquette disputes, with the best I’ve found being Etiquette Hell. Ultimately, there don’t necessarily need to be hard and fast rules about how to behave; rather, guidelines. Holliday puts this best when he describes manners as “to behave in a way that makes others feel considered, respected and comfortable,” and this is the real crux of modern good manners.