Technology is turning us into bad-mannered yobs

Living in more confined spaces, we're in need of a new etiquette
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In my denunciation of Radio 3 last week I referred rather disparagingly to a series presented by Joan Bakewell. But I was extremely sorry to discover that she and her husband had now separated. I admire Joan - even if I don't always like the programmes she makes. But the manner in which she and her husband, Jack Emery, announced the end of their 25-year marriage seemed to signal a new etiquette for the new millennium. Friends received cards announcing they had "sadly" decided to part. Is this sensible, no-nonsense behaviour, or just a bit toe-curling? I suppose it eliminates a lot of explanatory phone calls. But traditionally such announcements have been used for births, marriages and deaths. Do we now find verbal communication so difficult that sending a card is an easier option?

In my denunciation of Radio 3 last week I referred rather disparagingly to a series presented by Joan Bakewell. But I was extremely sorry to discover that she and her husband had now separated. I admire Joan - even if I don't always like the programmes she makes. But the manner in which she and her husband, Jack Emery, announced the end of their 25-year marriage seemed to signal a new etiquette for the new millennium. Friends received cards announcing they had "sadly" decided to part. Is this sensible, no-nonsense behaviour, or just a bit toe-curling? I suppose it eliminates a lot of explanatory phone calls. But traditionally such announcements have been used for births, marriages and deaths. Do we now find verbal communication so difficult that sending a card is an easier option?

Joan belongs to a generation in which manners and etiquette actually matter. The untimely death of John Morgan the other week produced many tributes pointing out just how well his book about modern manners sold. But to whom? At 53, I, like Joan, was brought up with a set of rules about behaviour that has been invaluable in my journey through life. I'm not surprised that she should send out a card announcing the end of her marriage, because she probably thought it would spare friends awkward moments. But any day spent on public transport or in a restaurant convinces me that the old rules of etiquette have vanished. John Morgan's book lies unread on thousands of bookshelves. Even the basics of the old etiquette, like thank-you notes, are falling by the wayside. Now people eat walking along the street, bray loudly in restaurants, and smoke in your face. If you travel on a train crammed together like peas in a pod, what chance does etiquette really have?

Nowadays, living, eating and working in more confined spaces, we're in need of a new etiquette: rules, after all, are needed if we are to exist in any kind of harmony. On Friday figures showed that more teenagers are living at home than ever before while they complete university degrees. The loss of maintenance grants and the cost of tuition fees has made this a financial necessity. As someone who left home at 18, I can only imagine the problems this generation of young people will face, tied to the family home, with all its regulations and lack of privacy. There is much talk of giving schoolchildren lessons in citizenship, and now I can see a case for courses in etiquette. To have to continue to live in a small space the size of a prison cell is enough to cause ructions in even the closest family. At 18 you want loud music, unsuitable clothes and even more unsuitable boyfriends. You crave privacy, you need secrets. You want an environment in which to do nothing for hours on end, and then stay up all night catching up on the work you were meant to do.

One of the biggest dilemmas facing young people is that their parents are too trendy, too under- standing. My friends like the same music as their kids, they share clothes with their daughters and even go to the same clubs. Where is the space for rebellion and the room to be different? In my book of the new etiquette, I would write a chapter for parents imploring them to allow their children the right to be revolting and incomprehensible.

My gay friends still stay in separate bedrooms when they visit their parents. Is that considerate behaviour or should the new etiquette prevail whereby any long- standing relationship is treated as permanent? Is it rude to send a text message on a mobile phone thanking someone for a meal? In an age when we are faced with information overload, is it discourteous to leave your answering machine switched on in order to monitor calls? How long can you delay calling someone back before they take offence?

I am quite well schooled in the old etiquette, but coping with the new leaves me confused. All I do know is that when Jack Straw talks about yobs he is focusing on the most visible aspect of the behavioural rot that is creeping into everyday life. It starts with throwing a beer can in the street and continues with pumping loud music through your car hi-fi. Handwritten thank-you notes seem a relic from the past, don't they?

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