While the Loaded lads and their female counterparts revel in behaving badly in public, one might be forgiven for thinking good manners don't matter any more. This is a time of increased informality - a time when it is acceptable to pinch a prince's bum (if you're a Spice Girl) and Buckingham Palace deems it no longer necessary to curtsey to the Queen.
But old habits die hard. Many institutions still exist and for younger people moving fast up the corporate tree, or those coming to Britain from overseas, the fear of causing offence remains as strong as ever.
"Interest in good manners is coming back after the yuppie Eighties when no one seemed to care," says Jacqueline Fraser, founder of Manners, a company which runs courses in etiquette and social skills. Like others offering advice in this area, she reports a significant increase in interest among clients - especially younger people working in the City, sales and IT. "People now realise manners do matter and they can be useful weapons to impress a client or boss."
Ms Fraser may be right. Research published last week in the latest issue of Nature claims that good manners make people more prosperous. The study, conducted by Oxford University zoologist Martin Nowak and Karl Sigmund, a mathematician from the University of Vienna, set out to prove meanness and incivility to others lead to an evolutionary dead-end, while kindness and attentiveness to others tend to boost your chances of survival.
This comes as no surprise to Jane Procter, editor of Tatler. "Manners provide a framework within which people understand what they should and should not do. Ill-mannered people hide behind etiquette. Some people use `the right form' to exclude others - which is as rude as the behaviour of the new yobbocracy."
John Wheatley, editor of Debrett's, agrees. "People do still care deeply about good manners," he says. "We get over 30 calls a day from people who are petrified about doing the wrong thing. Many of them are young people who through wealth or rapid promotion are finding themselves invited to posh "dos" and are afraid of not knowing the right thing to do."
Such as? Causing unintentional offence by failing to answer an invitation correctly, by arriving too early or too late, by demonstrating poor table manners, or not following the correct dress code.
"New money", the changing nature of relationships between men and women, the decline of the "traditional" family and rapid technological advances have wrought fundamental changes to the way we communicate and conduct business, John Wheatley explains. Meanwhile, instruction in good manners, once a fundamental part of schooling, is in decline.
"Children are losing social skills as they spend more time in front of the computer or TV," says Cristina Stuart, managing director of presentations consultancy Speakeasy. "Employers comment that while a graduate's CV looks good, when the actual person walks through the door, they often lack even the basic social graces."
And young people know it. According to Judith Kark, principal of Lucie Clayton College, the one-time modelling school which now runs courses in business skills and nannying, many are apologetic and ill-equipped. "Modern manners are key modules in all our courses," she explains. "There is a growing demand from business for staff who are well-trained, well- presented and well-mannered." A number of companies are even sending existing staff to Lucie Clayton to brush up social skills. Even so, Ms Kark admits it can be tricky defining what constitutes good manners in the late Nineties.
People should be aware that what is now acceptable behaviour to some is still unacceptable to others. "Manners will never waste away. We're just not conditioned to let that happen," Ms Kark insists. "Besides, good manners are a useful and effective weapon." Just don't tell Gazza or Liam.
Q. Which cutlery should you use to eat a salad? a) knife and fork b) fork c) knife.
A. b) fork. Using a knife and fork to eat a salad suggests you harbour sinister suspicions about your host. (Centuries ago, poison was injected into the veins of lettuces - cutting into the leaves was a useful precaution)
Q. How high should you fill your glass with wine?
A. Never more than two thirds full and hold it by the stem.
Q. You are served shellfish and presented with a finger bowl. What should you do?
A. Eat the easy bits first with a knife and fork, then address the trickier parts with implements provided. Use the bowl for "delicate ablutions" and pat your hands dry on the napkin.
Q. You've forgotten to get your spouse flowers or champagne for your anniversary. Should you ask your secretary to get something for you?
A. No. It is bad manners to ask your secretary to do things that are not his or her responsibility.
Q. Should you fire someone before or after lunch?
A. It doesn't matter, but always do it in person and ensure the way in which it is done preserves the greatest dignity for the recipient.
Source: `Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners' by John Morgan (1996)
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