It may seem old-fashioned, but this author is right. Manners maketh the man. And woman
Published 14/07/2014 | 02:30
Oh, Janey Mac, this is where I came in, I thought, when I read the advice handed out to young women from the editor of 'Tatler' magazine, Kate Reardon.
Be polite, young ladies, she's been saying. Nice manners will get you a lot farther than high marks in exams! Ms Reardon, who is the author of 'Top Tips for Girls', and a graduate of the prestigious Cheltenham Ladies College, has been talking to the pupils of other posh girls' schools in England and telling them that the best career advancement is politeness.
"It doesn't matter how many (exam results) you have, what kind of degree you have, if you have good manners, people will like you. And if they like you, they will help you. I'm talking about being polite and respectful and making people you interact with feel valued."
That brought me back to my Loreto College schooldays, and how I loathed genteel lectures about being a well-brought up young lady. Don't eat in the street! That's "common"! Don't raise your voice like a fishwife! Show respect! Wear white gloves at a job interview! Ugh! This was what made women repressed.
My instinctive reaction was to go out and do the opposite at every turn. Especially since there was more of this "young lady" caper being dished out at home. "Drunkenness is unedifying in a man," I used to hear it said, "but in a woman – completely unacceptable! An inebriated woman loses all dignity and self-respect." It was enough to send you straight to the pub to order two large gin and tonics.
If I'd been a school-leaver listening to Kate Reardon last week, I might have felt exactly the same as I did at 17. Rebellious. Why doesn't she lecture young men about manners?
And I don't think she's right in seeming to marginalise exam results: good academic results are important and should never be downplayed.
Yet Ms Reardon did put her counsel in quite a canny way. She appealed to the young women's self-interest. She didn't say it was "ladylike" to be polite: she said it would advance their careers to show nice manners.
And she had some evidence to back her up, too. A British survey has recently shown that almost half of business leaders say that school-leavers are unable to grasp workplace etiquette.
They don't always understand that you don't dress for the office in quite the same way as you might dress for a night's clubbing; or that, for all the nostrums about equality, there are subtle hierarchies in a work situation, and it's smart to suss them out.
And the world of electronic media and texting has had a revolutionary, and possibly confusing, impact on social relations, which were once much more formal than they are today.
Neighbours – even quite close neighbours – would once call each other "Mr" and "Mrs" all their lives.
There were rules about when you could switch to first names, and when not. Men quite often addressed each other only by surnames – my husband has a drawer-full of letters sent to him in his university days, beginning "Dear West".
There were social rules about how to write a letter – you were told never to begin the first sentence with "I".
There were rules about telephone use – not always kept, maybe, but outlined. In continental countries, it was considered rude to phone someone after 8pm, as that was their family time.
In Ireland, an early-morning telephone call would be considered either intrusive or alarming.
And there were conventions about what was appropriate conduct between men and women. Men were expected to make the first move – at a dance, for a date, for a marriage proposal. And men were expected to be financially responsible for an evening out (a woman might tactfully acquire tickets for a dance or a theatre, but never in a "forward" way).
All these protocols have collapsed with more equality between women and men, more individuality, and the informality of manners – first-name terms are now widespread common practice. The immediacy of electronic media changed interpersonal relations even further – complete strangers feel quite free to hurl abusive comments at each other on Facebook.
It's also more admired today to be assertive and aggressive – television inquisitors are better esteemed for seeming to nail a squirming interviewee.
So maybe this is the context in which Kate Reardon is imparting her advice about the advantages of politeness. And where there is a vacuum about social rules, maybe guidelines have to be re-invented.
Possibly "politeness" – which can sound a bit stuffy – could be renamed "people skills", or even "decency". It is certainly more impressive, when you are on the receiving end, if a young person applying for a job shows thoughtfulness and consideration for others. You also remember candidates better when they have such people-skills.
The informality of modern life is sometimes blamed on American influences, since Americans have usually been quicker to use first-names, and don't stand on ceremony as much as Europeans. And yet, interestingly, Americans are often disarmingly polite, and strong on honorifics like "Sir" and "Ma'am". In the southern states, particularly, even young children will answer a question with a "Yes, Ma'am".
Yet I sometimes think one source of American manners is, simply, business. "The business of America is business," said Henry Ford, and Americans learned that politeness made for better commerce.
Which is partly what Kate Reardon was saying. Master the people skills and you'll get on in life, and business.