Etiquette in the digital age just got a whole lot more fraught

Debrett's presents the living room as a social minefield

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The Independent Online

Debrett’s, the etiquette people, have just published some helpful new guidance for the socially perplexed. I love the way Debrett’s takes the minutiae of human interaction and lays down the rules with parade-ground firmness. Even shaking hands gets the instruction-manual treatment: “Always use your right hand, and ‘pump’ the hand two or three times before you let it go. Ensure that your fingers grip the other person’s palm, otherwise you will crush their fingers… Check that your palms are not sweaty or clammy before shaking hands.” Sage advice indeed. But now they’ve linked up with Airbnb, the “lodging app”, to offer some counsel about Homesharing Etiquette. It’s a fascinating document, both in the picture it paints of modern middle-class families, and the things it leaves out.

It recommends that you be punctual when invited to someone’s house, which is pretty obvious, but it tells you that, if you’re running late, for God’s sake tell your host verbally rather than by a “casual” and “cowardly” text. That way, you’re less likely to “irritate” them. What a stern scenario of officer-class fuming this conjures up. Those who like the immediacy of texting will be startled to realise they’re craven, skulking cowards, afraid of communicating in a properly manly fashion.

The rules for creating “a welcoming space” for the visitors border on derangement: “Guest rooms should contain freshly-made beds, guest towels, storage space… a vase of flowers, some bedside reading or guest soap… reading lamps, extra pillows and blankets and hairdryers…” I love the provision of “storage space”, presumably by throwing out the contents of your cupboards and wardrobes to make room for the new arrivals’ blouses and trousers. And why stop at bedside reading? Shouldn’t one also supply a plasma TV screen with a dozen DVDs to reflect all tastes, including David Attenborough wildlife shows and Mexican porn in Sensurround?

“Guests,” the guide sternly warns, “must have their wits about them when they stand on the front doorstep.” Well yes – there’s much more to it than just standing there like a village idiot. “If their shoes are muddy, then they should remove them on entry.” And if your hosts’ faces betray their feelings that your clothes are frankly hideous, or filthy, or dreadfully unfashionable, perhaps you should take them off as well.

If the guests don’t already know the hosts, “introductions must be made to all members of the party, including babes in arms and dogs”. I know what they mean, but I can’t shake off the image of the posh hosts politely shaking hands with the baby (while remembering not to crush its fingers) and saying, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t catch your name” to the dog.

The guide schoolmarmishly recommends leaving the bathroom as you’d wish to find it and suggests you “conduct a brief, forensic examination” (code for the deployment of a lavatory brush) “before unlocking the bathroom door”. It presents the living room as a social minefield, in which one should consider hara-kiri sooner than “sit in your grandmother’s favourite chair”.

It displays the bourgeois home visit as fraught with peril, hedged about with dire opportunities to give offence, show your crap taste or reveal your amazing thoughtlessness. It alerts you at every turn to the social toxicity of lateness, muddy boots, informality (with babies and dogs,) and leaving flecks of toothpaste on the bathroom mirror. It reads more like social satire than a friendly guide. When it turns to behaviour involving digital objects, however, I find myself in vehement agreement. “Talking while glancing at a screen looks adolescent and ill-mannered,” it said. “If you give other people your full attention when you talk to them, you might actually notice that, for example, they’re uncomfortable or embarrassed or have something to tell you or ask you.” Absolutely. Such admirable good sense makes me wish they’d addressed a few  more rules. Such as:

1. On entering your host’s abode, try not to ask, “What’s your w-ifi code?” before you’ve said “Hello” or ”What a lovely house.”

2. Try to keep to a minimum the number of times you say, “You can get an app for that.”

3. It is considered highly inappropriate to show fellow-guests a “sexting” image you’ve just received from an inamorata. Especially during dinner.

4. Under no circumstances should you take photographs on your mobile phone of your host’s lunch, dinner or breakfast, nor a video of their irate face after you’ve done it for the fourth time.

5. Nothing is more inimical to host-guest harmony than checking a contact on Tinder and saying, “She’s only a mile away – I could be back here inside an hour.”

6. The vital thank-you card should eschew any mention of a) the “delightful country aroma” of manure in the herb garden, b) the infestation of flies in the guest bedroom, and c) your wife’s touching devotion to the couture of Carmen Miranda.

My fears for Patty Hearst’s prize-winning little shih tzu

I’ll be surprised if I see an odder headline this year: “Patty Hearst’s shih tzu wins toy group at Westminster dog show.” One’s first response is incredulity. They have a dog show at Westminster? Is this a pre-election thing, to persuade more voters to turn out on 7 May by bringing them images of MPs kissing cute pooches?

On discovering that the Westminster Kennel Club is based in New York, one’s second reaction is: Patty Hearst? Wasn’t she a terrorist – no wait, an heiress – no hang on, a kidnap victim? And one recalls the weird story from 1974: how she, the granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (who?) and radicalised so that she re-appeared as one of them, wearing army fatigues, brandishing a semi-automatic rifle and holding up a bank, for which she was imprisoned before being pardoned by Bill Clinton.

Regrettably, one’s third response is: OK then, this dog – what’s the story? The pooch is called Rocket, which sets off all kinds of alarm bells in one’s brain. Is this some kind of joke, a reference to the days when Hearst might have owned a rocket-launcher? And she’s one of three co-owners of Rocket, which suggests some dubious tripartite sharing of responsibility.

The fact that Ms Hearst has been in dogs, so to speak, for 10 years suggests a Homeland-style, deep-cover, long-gestating underground operation that will achieve its ghastly fruition when Rocket, having won his best-in-class rosette in New York, takes part in some super-Crufts, attended by Barack Obama and his beloved water-spaniel, is detonated by remote control and blows up into a million smithereens.

The Symbionese Liberation Army will have its big day at last. And will instantly lose any support it might once had, by being perfectly horrid to an innocent animal….