The harsh truth about modern manners

Poor etiquette is not the cause of social nastiness but a relatively trivial symptom of it
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The Independent Online

One of the rudest men I know has perfect manners. Sophisticated in matters of etiquette (a word, incidentally, that is too redolent of nannies and piano teachers to pass his own lips), he would be physically incapable of passing a carafe of port to the right. To be seen cutting the Stilton in the wrong way or preceding a woman through a doorway would, for him, be as great a source of shame as being heard to refer to the toilet or to condiments.

One of the rudest men I know has perfect manners. Sophisticated in matters of etiquette (a word, incidentally, that is too redolent of nannies and piano teachers to pass his own lips), he would be physically incapable of passing a carafe of port to the right. To be seen cutting the Stilton in the wrong way or preceding a woman through a doorway would, for him, be as great a source of shame as being heard to refer to the toilet or to condiments.

Yet, if the point of manners is to make social interaction more civilised, then the man is a yob of the lowest type. When the conversation strays from his own area of interest, himself, he will express polite but unmistakable boredom. With perfect, well-bred fastidiousness, he manages to make those attempting to converse with him feel ill at ease.

It is unlikely that my acquaintance would invest in something as banal as a self-help book, unless it covered the rudiments of training a gundog, but I am sure he would be pleased to learn that bookshops will soon be full of guides for those who lack his own perfect grasp of manners. Snot-nosed "kids" running riot in supermarkets, oafish teenagers on their ghastly skateboards, foul-mouthed parents unable to control themselves or their brood: the uncouthness of the outside world knows no bounds and, in the view of many, there has never been a more urgent need for books of etiquette. Now that natural home of decency and goodness, book publishing, has come to the rescue.

Over the coming months, at least three volumes on the subject are to be politely puffed and discreetly sold in all the nicest bookshops. Simon Fanshawe's The Done Thing will be released in July, followed by Thomas Blaikie's mysteriously entitled You Look Awfully Like the Queen. Then, most thrillingly of all, the autumn will bring Lynne Truss's follow-up to her punctuation epic Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Entitled Talk to the Hand, it has a subtitle for readers uneasy with ambiguity, "The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life, or Six Good Reasons to Stay at Home and Bolt the Door".

All three will probably sell well and will find their way into the loos of people confident of their own good manners and despairing of the rest of the world. Over recent years, respectable middle-class folk who have had a passable education have been able to shudder with a sense of superiority in one area after another, and their snobbery has encouraged a mini-publishing industry to cash in. First, Truss brought millions to an ecstasy of disapproval by pointing out that quite a lot of people were unable to deploy the apostrophe correctly. Then grammar was the next great issue, with authors like James Cochrane and John Humphrys sternly reproving those who were unable to parse a sentence correctly.

Now the scolding has turned to matters of behaviour. There will be much shaking of heads at the apparent inability of children to deploy the word "thank you". Horror stories will circulate about men who fail to stand up for pregnant women on the Tube, or footballers swearing at referees, or teenagers barging ahead of adults on to buses.

Will manners improve as a result of this great new campaign? Of course not. For all the sincerely held views of Fanshawe, Truss and Blaikie, and the wailings of the usual why-oh-why crew whose columns bemoan the decline of decent standards of behaviour, the books will simply reinforce stereotypes. They will not be given to the ill-mannered - a present which would be the equivalent of telling someone, "You're a rude bastard, have a read of this" - but will reassure those who believe that, just as they punctuated and wrote more correctly than hoi polloi, they also behave better.

Manners only make sense in the context of kindness and respect. The person, half-human and half-Dalek, who speaks to you on the telephone from a call centre may obey all the basic rules of verbal etiquette in its dealings with you and yet, with its lazy, unhelpful politeness, it is essentially being as rude as if it had told you to sod off. Manners are being used as brick wall.

Poor etiquette is not the cause of social nastiness but a relatively trivial symptom of it. If some children have lost the art of manners, it is because they are being raised in a world where boorishness and aggression are rewarded and applauded at every turn. When politicians compare journalists to concentration camp guards, or call their rivals "attack mongrels" or describe an opposition leader as looking like a foetus, their tone may be casual, or smooth, or facetious, but, while not breaching the basic rules of manners, they contribute incomparably more to the culture of insult than an oafish teenager indulging in a bit of harmless swearing.

Guides to etiquette, language and punctuation offer the comfort of smugness to those who buy them and distract from the main problem. When, on a pre-emptive publicity strike, Simon Fanshawe appeared on a Jeremy Vine phone-in on Radio Two, the most telling call was from a girl in her early twenties. It was not the young who were rude, she argued, but the middle-aged and old as they talked to the young with the comfortable unthinking authority of age.

terblacker@aol.com

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