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SORRY! THE ENGLISH AND THEIR MANNERS
John Murray (publisher)
London - At the end of a meal in Korea, it is considered polite to belch. In China, it is rude to finish everything on your plate. Well-behaved Germans never cut their potatoes at dinner, not wanting to suggest they haven’t been properly cooked.
The French prefer not to cut lettuce, believing it should be folded rather than sliced. Among some Nigerian tribes, men are forbidden to talk about food.
In this breezy hike through the treacherous terrain of manners, Henry Hitchings tells of a recent incident in a fast-food restaurant in the Chinese city of Chongqing. An Englishman watched as a Chinese family let their child pee on the floor of the restaurant: ‘when foreign diners fled from the next table in disgust, the child’s parents plundered their leftover food’.
Even allowing for regional differences, it is hard to believe that this family was obeying some ancient local law of dining etiquette. Yet their behaviour was clearly not considered outlandish. In much the same way, in her landmark travel book Domestic Manners Of The Americans, published in 1832, Mrs Trollope records watching a member of the audience in a US theatre vomiting profusely, ‘which appeared not in the least to annoy or surprise his neighbours’.
Manners is a fascinating subject, and Hitchings handles it with all his customary wit, knowledge and elegance.
He kicks off his book with childhood reminiscences of watching the loutish John McEnroe having temper tantrums at Wimbledon, yelling at the umpire and throwing his racket to the ground. In a TV column, Clive James said he was ‘as charming as a dead mouse in a loaf of bread’. But in his memoirs McEnroe insists, a little unconvincingly, that what others took for yobbishness was in fact a principled stand against the ruling class: ‘To me, “manners” meant sleeping linesmen at Wimbledon, and bowing and curtsying to rich people with hereditary titles who didn’t pay taxes.’
Thirty years on, McEnroe has emerged as the most courteous of commentators, and contemporary Wimbledon champions such as Roger Federer are the epitome of good manners. It all goes to show that the history of manners is not, as many would have it, downhill all the way, but more a matter of ebb and flow; of some manners getting worse while others improve.
Standards change. Writing on manners in 1530, Erasmus advised that a cough is the best way to mask the passing of wind, and that on no account should a fart be suppressed.
Around the same time, Henry VIII employed someone to carry his portable loo and wipe his Royal bottom: Hitchings makes the interesting point that this job was not considered lowly, but held by a high-ranking courtier. It is rather as if, in our own times, Prince Charles employed The Rt Hon Nicholas Soames for the same purpose.
Throughout history, there has been a belief that manners are in decline, and that the younger generation has never been worse. ‘The child of today is coarser, more vulgar, less refined, than his parents were,’ grumbled one report, as long ago as 1898.
Hitchings includes a long list of contemporary complaints by the older generation, among them off-colour speeches at weddings, drivers using their car horns gratuitously, the decline of thank-you letters, shop assistants chatting to their friends rather than serving customers, theatregoers checking the time on their brightly illuminated phones and ‘dog-owners doing nothing to clear up their mutts’ profusely deposited s***’.
In many ways this list illustrates his point that manners are becoming more varied, more complex and generally harder to keep up with. For instance, I can’t remember any self-respecting dog-owner walking around with a plastic bag at the ready 30 years ago; in fact, if they had done so, they would have been regarded as lunatic. But in recent years the plastic bag has become obligatory; this, in turn, has served to spotlight the few who can’t be bothered, and thus to exacerbate the tut-tuts.
While some manners remain constant – apparently the average Briton still says ‘sorry’ eight times a day – others transform without a moment’s notice.
Nowadays, we often know someone’s Christian name but not their surname – even ticket collectors on trains sport badges saying just ‘James’ or ‘Keith’ – but a few years ago the opposite was the norm. Back in 1933, two mountaineers, Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, shared a small tent in the Himalayas. After a month, Shipton suggested they should stop calling each other by their surnames. ‘Are you suggesting that I should call you Eric?’ replied Tilman. ‘I’m afraid I couldn’t do that. I should feel such a bloody fool.’
Nowadays, Shipton and Tilman would not only be expected to call each other Eric and Bill, but also to greet each other with a hug rather than a handshake. This strikes me as the single greatest physical alteration in manners over the past decade, although the man-hug still remains a little tentative: I suspect that, in another ten years, we will all have given up on the nervous little back-slaps that nowadays accompany it.
Technological advances can have an unexpected influence on manners: the decline of thank-you letters coincided with the advent of email. Each fresh invention throws a spanner in the works of tradition. In 1962, Evelyn Waugh referred to the telephone as a ‘pernicious device’, adding that ‘people leave all arrangements vague in the knowledge that they can always ring up at the last minute and change them’.
As Hitchings points out, it is lucky that Waugh isn’t alive to witness the sloppy dictatorship of the mobile phone, which leaves arrangements not only vague but entirely fluid, drowns out all other conversation on trains, and offers instant diversion from any company.
It takes time for an agreed etiquette to accrue around any new technology: the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, suggested people should say ‘ahoy’ to signal their presence, but this never caught on, and instead the virtually unknown ‘hello’ took off.
And so to the present day. In my fuddy-duddy way, I still introduce emails with the word ‘Dear’, although my wife, being more go-ahead, seems happy to put ‘Hi’.
I’ve noticed recently that an increasing number of emailers don’t bother to put anything at all, but just barge straight in with their message, at the end of which they also put nothing, or just a curt initial. At the moment, this seems the rudest option of all, but I suspect that, in a year or two’s time, it will have become the norm, and stick-in-the-muds like me will be doing it ourselves, without a second thought.
Internet dating is also, by all accounts, becoming increasingly abrupt and discourteous. An etiquette guide to internet dating, published in 2009, advised of ‘an unwritten rule in the internet that it is acceptable to ignore mail from people who don’t interest you’.
But it can work both ways: some inventions bring about improvements in manners. Hitchings argues that the arrival of the dinner fork in the early 17th Century meant people started eating with far greater delicacy, and that this, in turn, promoted greater refinement in conversation.
Of course, some manners are really just a sublimated, or not-so-sublimated, form of aggression. The new trend for shop assistants to reply ‘No problem’ to the simplest request might well be an example of this, as it implies that, for people less tolerant than themselves, it would certainly have been a problem.
Misanthropy disguised as courtesy is evident on both sides of the counter. ‘Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person,’ wrote Mark Twain, who always knew what he was talking about. - Mail On Sunday