A short history of modern manners

Etiquette is worthless without humanity. But some rules are socially useful and help us reconnect 'correct' behaviour with decency

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Manners have an image problem. This stems in part from a tendency to conflate them with the people who profess to be their most passionate defenders. Even more damagingly, manners are confused with the cramped codes of etiquette, with silly and arbitrary rules about fish knives and the precise length of time one should mourn the passing of a second cousin.

Etiquette is essentially a veneer, a gloss of cosmetic excellence. It is a subject that prompts tittering on two counts: some of us titter at other people's faux pas, and some of us titter at the very idea of such finishing-school flummery.

I am put in mind of this by a droll book called Easy English for Lazy People, published in Russia in 2011. There I read about two characters called Gary and Harry. Harry "knows English rather well" and "has good manners". Gary "doesn't know English well" and "doesn't have good manners".

It seems apt that the author links having good manners with knowing English. While manners are by no means uniquely English, or uniquely British, the English language is rich in vocabulary and idioms that connote a restrained, evasive reasonableness. Its forms of cushioning are legion: not least the phrases – "I would suggest", "I imagine", "I gather" – and the adverbs – "arguably", "possibly", "conceivably" – that impart a carefully weighted vagueness to what might otherwise seem rudely decisive.

But for poor benighted Gary, the problem is more than just not saying "possibly". "Gary doesn't have good manners" is the prevailing, button-down way of letting us know that he's the kind of guy who drinks from the finger bowl. Maybe he needs to get hold of a companion volume, which I'll call "Easy Manners for Lazy People". Or maybe he doesn't, because being Gary has its compensations: "Gary's job is interesting", "Gary has a good sense of humour", "Gary's wife is beautiful". Reading this, I'm not sure whether I want to be Gary or Harry. The latter's "good manners" don't appear to be to his advantage.

The word "manners" usually comes with an adjective attached: "good", "bad", "exquisite", "non-existent". When not attached, it is implied: outside professional anthropology, "He has manners" means "He has good manners". This is the sort of comment that may be just about acceptable in a school report. But in other contexts it is redolent of snooty presumption: we are a phone's throw away from the expostulations of wild-eyed sticklers nursing their improbable peeves.

It was in the 19th century that a fixation with etiquette supplanted a more nuanced concern with underlying qualities – that having "good manners" came to be a matter of skin-deep sophistication and avoiding pitfalls. The inspiration for this was Lord Chesterfield, the politician and diplomat whose letters to his illegitimate son Philip served as a kind of how-to guide for those cynically bent on self-advancement. Chesterfield introduced the word "etiquette" into everyday English. In French it signified a ticket or label – possibly a ticket showing a courtier where to sit at a ceremony, or a soldier's billet annotated with instructions. Chesterfield adopted it, though, as if it meant "small ethics". A minuscule ethics, that is, within which he could say both that dancing is "a very trifling, silly thing" and that "It is very proper and decent to dance well".

In the 19th century, the term became a touchstone of the socially mobile and the socially anxious. Look at Victorian guides to etiquette and you find an array of urgent prescriptions. Curious readers will learn that a lady's visiting card should be three-and-five-eighths inches wide, and that when crossing the road she shouldn't raise her dress with both hands, lest she show too much ankle. Or, from a volume with the title Manners and Rules of Good Society, written by "a member of the aristocracy", that "jellies, blancmanges, ice puddings, etc., should be eaten with a fork, as should be all sweets sufficiently substantial to admit of it".

A personal favourite among these guides, proscriptive rather than prescriptive, is Oliver Bell Bunce's Don't: A Manual of Mistakes and Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech (1883). Bunce's rules range from the straightforward ("Don't smoke in the street") via the unhelpfully vague ("Don't be over-civil") to those that are just unhelpful ("Don't speak ungrammatically").

Even at their most lucid, prohibitions of this type are not very effective, especially in the short term – but in any case this is a canon in which manners are divorced from morality and indeed from any kind of rationale. When Victorians spoke of "manners and morals", as they often did, they imagined a continuum where in fact there had lately been disjunction.

Baldassare Castiglione's Il Cortegiano, translated into English in 1561, was one of the seminal texts of its time, a celebration of gracious talk and social dexterity. A key term for Castiglione was sprezzatura – currently becoming a bit of a hipster buzzword. By it he meant the ability to convey an impression of effortless distinction, a nonchalance about one's own refulgent nonchalance. Perhaps we hear in sprezzatura a note of creamy smugness, but the strictures of etiquette allow for none of Castiglione's recommended artistry or charm. They don't allow for personality, either. They bear out John Stuart Mill's line that "The English, more than any other people, not only act but feel according to rule". Victorian writers on etiquette had little to say about life's most intimate moments. Yet despite peddling trivia, they took a grand view of what they were doing.

Much of their dogma has been superseded. What remains, though, is the conviction – on the part of those well versed in etiquette – that a respect for its niceties is a sign of deeper virtues: sensitivity, community spirit, moral strength. We are invited to detect these virtues in the decorous wording of a thank-you letter, a readiness to hold open doors for the infirm or the encumbered, and even the ability to eat an ice pudding with a fork.

But these are learnt behaviours – not worthless, but nevertheless a performance – and no guarantee of good character. Many adept performers are also virtuous, yet we are all familiar with people whose suave propriety is an instrument of subterfuge. The sort of people who know how best to eat an artichoke but make you want to count the spoons once they're out the door. Is it going too far to say that impeccable etiquette arouses suspicion, that a person's mastery of form may cause us to question what it is that makes him or her function?

Even the nameless author of Manners and Rules of Good Society could see that punctilious etiquette is nothing without humanity: "Why should we not cultivate and encourage in ourselves consideration, thoughtfulness, and graciousness towards others in the smallest details of daily life?"

Because of the Victorian and neo-Victorian meticulousness about cementing conventions and inventing traditions we are apt to think of manners as a minefield – and as cumbrous or expendable. Yet really manners are something else. The philosopher David Hume defined them as "a kind of lesser morality, calculated for the ease of company and conversation" and spoke of the "companionable virtues of good manners and wit, decency and genteelness". In other words, these are virtues that sit well together and enable us to sit well together. They are not a form of self-abnegation, but instead lubricants of sociability.

Henry Hitchings is the author of 'Sorry! The English and their Manners'

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