Monday 11 December 2017

How to mind your modern manners

Forget worrying about the right way to end a letter or whether to start eating before your hostess, what about the dos and don'ts of sharing naked pictures of yourself? Or how to treat a boss who is 10 years younger than you and wears trainers and a hoodie? In these difficult days of social media and new world orders, 'please' and 'thank you' simply don't cut it any more. And so, Emily Hourican has the definitive guide to everything you need to know about modern manners

The whole manners business used to be so much simpler
The whole manners business used to be so much simpler
Smile and Wave — ‘Smiling is still important’
The Children Act — ‘Yours aren’t cuter than anyone else’s, they are just kids’
Office politics — ‘He or she may wear jeans and a hoodie . . . but they are still colleagues

Emily Hourican

The thing about good manners is that they are easy. Is there anything else that produces such reward for such little effort? You aren't moving mountains or running marathons, you aren't actually doing very much at all, just remembering to look people in the eye and smile as you say "hello", "goodbye", "please", and "thank you." That sort of thing. As such, they are like one of those new workflow paradigms the internet is always shouting about: little effort, big result.

The baseline for all good manners is courtesy and consideration for others. This is where the really obvious, old-fashioned stuff sprang from, such as holding doors open rather than letting them slam in someone's face, or waiting for everyone at the table to be served before starting to eat (unless the host specifically asks you not too; then it is bad manners to ignore her wishes).

Until recently, there were certain hard and fast rules that applied generally and were easy to follow, meaning that navigating any new territory was relatively easy. These rules, essentially, were: "Am I putting myself before others?" and, "Is this going to make the other person feel uncomfortable?" If the answer to either of those was yes, then you were in undesirable territory. Simple.

Thoughtfulness, respect, consideration, these are all very necessary for the smooth progress of social life - and perhaps now more so than ever, as we all live in greater density and proximity to one another. Ours is a more crowded society, and so the little things that grease our interactions are more important. The trouble is, just at the exact moment that we have become more than ever in need of a clear code of behaviour geared towards keeping social interactions pleasant, we have reached a stage of profound confusion around what is and is not good manners.

So much of what was once obvious has come into conflict with modern social habits, and the consequence is deep confusion. For example, the rules governing how to behave towards women were once clear and set in stone: pushing in seats; standing up when a woman enters a room, that sort of thing. Now, at least some of that is going to come across as patronising and sexist.

And there is an even more profound problem here. This is where the old-fashioned, correct reticence around talking about oneself (remember when no actual answer was required to "how do you do?", and, frankly, none was welcome) comes into conflict with the very modern trend for telling everyone everything, whether they want to hear it or not. Telling them by tweet, by Facebook post, email, Instagram and in person. Telling them at 3am, 11pm, and every moment in between. Showing them photos of your house, your kids, your Christmas tree, your lunchtime sandwich, your holiday and your breasts.

Yes, we felt sorry for Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson that their nude pictures were leaked over the internet, but it is hard not to think, "Well, if you hadn't been sending nudie footage of yourself in the first place, this couldn't have happened."

There is a direct conflict of interest here, between the old-fashioned instinct for reticence and the growing instinct to brag, to share, to reveal. Thanks to social media, there is no such thing as a private life anymore. This, of course, has many troubling ramifications - for safety, self-esteem, ultimately for boundaries - but also, and perhaps most immediately and blatantly, for the smooth and considerate function of society. Where are the barriers, now that Lena Dunham is happy to tell reporters that she isn't wearing underwear, or Robert Downey Jr jokes about having been a compulsive masturbator? Now that Miley Cyrus, Rihanna and Kim Kardashian have shown us pretty much all there is to see, and Kim has told us that her vagina looks better than ever post-birth, why should anyone bother being discreet about anything at all?

It's all up for grabs, and for discussion - sex, bodily functions, inner angst, dietary requirements, parenting methods. All the signs the world is giving out seem to suggest that holding back is for mugs, that the more you tell, in the most squirm-making detail, the more you will be rewarded. For some, it is a considered, deliberate decision, a choice to open their hearts and put forth their innermost secrets. For many millions more, it is simply a go-to position now, the default setting. "I have word vomit," is how Miley Cyrus puts it. So do legions of others. They will even boast about it.

"I have no filter," people will say proudly, like this is something good, something that shows them to be disarmingly candid instead of simply lacking the self-awareness and social nous to realise that what they are telling us is vicious, inappropriate, or just dull.

And so, for those of us on the receiving end, social interaction is now a roller-coaster ride between embarrassment (I do not wish to hear details of your urinary-tract infection); irritation (stop boasting about your second home in France); and utter, utter boredom (please, not that story about how you finally tracked down the ideal loo-roll holder in Ikea again).

There are all sorts of ways of getting around the current social lawlessness. You could try asking yourself, "What would my grandmother do?" or, "What would Audrey Hepburn do?" You could read the book published last year by UK Tatler editor Kate Reardon, Top Tips For Girls. Among those tips: "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."

Interesting that there seems to be a growing market for highly prescriptive and precise guidelines. Clearly, many of us are at sea; instinctively uncomfortable with the crass narcissism of the modern age, but unsure how to fight against it. So, here is a guide to modern manners, a delicate path through the potential pitfalls. Forget the door-opening, correct-knife-holding sort of stuff - I'm talking about the baseline: consideration for others, care for oneself. And, yes, it does matter, despite our so-called egalitarian society. Without these things, people simply won't like you as much. And that can have all sorts of ramifications.

Online Angst

Now, some of this you don't need me to spell out. Obviously, it is not good manners to hide behind anonymous handles like 'bigBoi123' and abuse people online, offering misspelt threats to rape them and blow up their houses. For that one, all you really need to do is mentally run it past your mother. Would you be happy for her to see what you have written?

Other, possibly more confusing matters include stuff such as, is it OK to send those virtual birthday cards that arrive by email and make you click on a link to see that 'Sandra J wishes you a very special day'. The answer, I'm afraid, is no. Yes, they are cheap, and ecological and quick, but all of those things are what mitigate against them. Here, the reward is directly proportional to the effort. You don't have to sit down and write a card in your own blood, but you do need to look like you tried harder than a spot of mouse-clicking. The same goes for Christmas and thank-you cards, but, strangely, invitations are now thoroughly acceptable in this format.

Don't cc people on general shout-out emails without checking first that they are happy to let others see their contact details (that is what bcc is for), don't treat their details like a personal Rolodex and send them unsolicited newsletters and general updates whenever you feel like it, and certainly not begging requests, even if it is for charity.

Crowd-funding, alas, has run its course. It's a pity, the idea is a good one - get friends and like-minded people to support your creative and entrepreneurial endeavours so you can trial your brilliant ideas without having to convince tight-fisted and cynical moneymen - but in its current format, it is played out. Apathy has set in, and a sense of irritation with the never-ending-ness of requests.

Don't, for God's sake, send generic 'funny' emails, not even ones about cats, and not least because they are never funny. Nor should you send - and I really shouldn't have to tell you this - the ones that promise you will get $10, or shares in a start-up, or good luck, if you circulate to 'three people before sunrise tomorrow'. Even if the email threatens you with 'bad things' if you don't send it on. Bite down on your superstition and just put it in the bin.

Phone form

Another thorny one is, when is it not polite to be on your phone? In general, the answer to that is any situation in which you are also required to interact with a person. So, it is downright rude to go through the supermarket checkout gesturing at the cashier while conducting an in-depth conversation on the phone around what somebody else said or didn't say last night. Ditto bus drivers, ticket-sellers, anyone who could reasonably expect a bit of human interaction from you.

Casual but repeated use of phones, either to make calls, check texts/Twitter/ email while chatting to someone else, is also rude, even though it now happens so frequently that there has been a tacit relaxing of the rules around this. However, at the very least, it still requires an "excuse me, I just need to check one thing . . ."

Please do not assume that half your attention is acceptable, while the other half is engaged in keeping up virtual conversations with people who aren't present, via a series of 'likes' and retweets. Good manners require giving your full attention to the person you are with; concentrating on them and what they are saying for as long as you are with them. Rubber-necking has always been rude, and virtual rubber-necking is no different.

Weirdly, by the way, where it was once the height of rudeness not to return a phone call, this is no longer so. The assumption these days is that if the call is important, the caller will try again.

Office Politics

It is always rude to assume your time is more important and valuable than the person you are dealing with. Don't turn up to work wearing the kind of outfit that might work at Glastonbury or Oxegen, and, once you're there, don't make the mistake of assuming that just because we don't call the boss 'sir' anymore, that there isn't a very detailed hierarchy. It may be subtle, but it is there, so work it out, and behave accordingly. He or she may be 10 years younger than you, may wear jeans and a hoodie, may even get drunk with you sometimes, but they are still the person who employs you, to whom you are answerable, and, ultimately, they will not appreciate being treated like some kind of slacker mate.

If you are lucky enough to work in an office that pays more than lip-service to the career progression of employees, then by all means engage with the person whose job is around where you hope to be in five years' time. Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that this person is your designated confidant and minder. They have a job to do, and that job isn't actually to listen patiently while you moan about having to find a new place to live because your flatmate's gone "psycho", or soul-search around whether to explore your creative side in Vietnam for a year. Keep it professional as well as polite.

This one is less good manners than simple survival, but, while we all know that the first thing a prospective boss will do is check out your social media profile, did you know that he or she may go as far back as five years? And that they may check comments - even friends' comments - as well as more obvious stuff like photos? So it isn't enough to not post up pics of yourself necking Jagerbombs in a see-through bikini, you also have to be careful what you say, and what you allow other people to say. Better still, understand and utilise the privacy settings properly.

In-Flight Entertainment

It is still not OK to take up more than your allotted space on the plane - in other words, keep your elbows in, don't plant them firmly on the seat rests, inviting a petty elbow war for the entire journey. It is tedious to pretend, every single time, that you thought yours was the window seat when it is quite clearly marked 'aisle', and force other people to ask you to move.


For my mother, "people I don't know calling me by my first name" was a real bugbear, and that could just as easily have been any women of her generation, and increasingly mine. Over the age of 35, instant first-name terms become less and less appealing. These are not the democratic days of nightclubs and early houses, where everyone is your best mate within five minutes; for actual real adults, a certain formality should apply, particularly when cold-calling is the activity under way. I once had a man from a telecommunications company that was trying to persuade me to sign up to their latest package, use my first name six or seven times in as many sentences, all in under four minutes. "Well, Emily, I'll tell you, Emily, you won't get a better offer than this, Emily . . ." until I wanted to scream.

Smile And Wave

"Smiling is still important," one friend said. "I used to go to a cafe run by the most miserable Frenchwoman I've ever met. Day after day, I'd approach with a warm smile, only to be ground down by the relentless dourness. I snapped one day and tried to force something positive from her - I said it was a nice day. She looked at me blankly, as if no one had asked her to corroborate such a thing before, and then turned slowly to the window. Her face, when it came back to me, was as sour as a salted lemon and she mumbled something about it being cold. I never went there again."

Ask Away

Along with the tendency to tell all comes the one to ask all. Meaning there is now nothing sacred. "Why haven't you had kids?" "Why aren't you with anyone?" "Why haven't you bought a house? You're missing the market, you know."

"Don't ask your single friends if they are seeing anyone at the moment or how their love life is," said a woman in her early 40s. "If it's going well they'll eventually 'let slip' that they've met someone gorgeous. If it's going badly, you'll only hammer home that fact."

Love Games

A number of women also singled out being 'played' by men, apparently an increasingly common occurrence.

And so, for the self-styled pick-up artists out there, the general guideline here is: just don't! No matter what the course/website/book promises you - that beautiful women will fall at your feet, begging to be treated badly by you and swearing undying devotion - embarking on this type of behaviour is the very height of bad manners.

The deliberate manipulation, the ingrained misogyny, the cheap one-liners, are all fundamentally rude. And that's even before we get to the 'neg', the calculated insult delivered in order to demean high-status women, such as: "You know, you could have a great body if you worked out more."

Trying it on as a pick-up artist is fundamentally incompatible with being polite. And, if there is one thing women love, it is men with excellent manners.

Sticking with love for a moment, it will never be polite to dump someone by text, to mutter that you didn't realise this was 'exclusive' when they catch you dating other people, or to share naked pictures of them with your friends.

The Children Act

Children, of course, are the Angola of potential landmine situations. The old-fashioned rules around children and manners - that they should be seen and not heard, and always defer to adults; that their parents should at least fake indifference to their achievements and cuteness - have entirely gone out the window, because they are now in fundamental conflict with new ways of thinking around child-rearing.

These days, to be a 'good' parent is to endlessly endorse your child, boosting their self-esteem by morally high-fiving them every three minutes, and allowing them to express themselves at all times, even when adults are talking or busy doing something else. Alongside that goes a drive for parents to show off their own brilliance by sharing the 'hilarious' thing their little darling said, the top prizes won, the fantastic goal scored and scholastic endeavours nailed.

Enough, right? Your friends without children are simply not interested, those who have children are pretending to be - just long enough for you to pause so they can reciprocate with a 25-minute slideshow of their latest family holiday and didn't little Tamara look adorable in her new swimsuit? Oh look, here she is dancing to Katy Perry's Roar. Isn't that so cute? Her dance teacher says she has real promise . . . Because I'm afraid I have some bad news: all kids are cute. They just are. Yours aren't cuter than anyone else's, they are just kids. The cuteness doesn't last, and it's not worth boasting about.

And if you won't do it for the sake of your friends, at least do it for the kids.

Apparently, 92pc of American babies have a social networking presence before their first birthday. No wonder there is such concern about an entire generation growing up so publicly, and with no control over their own profiles. Just imagine, those kids will one day have to apply for jobs, and risk their potential bosses being able to trawl thousands of pictures of them with vomit all over their Batman suits or sitting naked in a saucepan, or read posts in which you exclaim over the hilarity of the way they say "hostipal" instead of "hospital", or tell the world that: "Little Sarah became a woman today". Dignity can never be theirs, unless we stop hijacking their childhoods as fuel for our over-sharing.

He Said, She Said

Good manners demand an effort to create good conversation, whether for the sake of your host, your guests or just courtesy to the person in front of you. The phrase 'the art of conversation' is one of those that gets bandied about so much that it has become a kind of pointless cliche, a non-phrase, the lifestyle equivalent of that meaningless foodie term 'farm fresh'. But if we could go back, momentarily, you will see there is a clue, right there. Conversation is, at best, an art form. Something delicate and creative and no less wonderful for the fact that it has no enduring presence. It is - well, can be - something beautiful, created out of thin air and vanishing just as fast. But all too often, now, it is not.

Instead, it is mundane, moany, boastful, boring. Because we have forgotten it is supposed to be an art. We have become blinded by the grass-roots movement towards 'honesty' and 'openness', for which too many read: "I'll just splurge all the details of my bikini wax because, hey, this is what's going on in my life . . ."

We may be past the days of Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin set, past the wits of the 19th Century and the dazzling put-downs of Joan Rivers, who said of Elizabeth Taylor: "She's so fat, she puts mayonnaise on her aspirins". And Bette Midler, who said of Princess Anne: "She loves nature in spite of what it did to her." Or the late, wonderful Nora Ephron, but, hey, that doesn't mean we give up entirely. Think of Prince saying, "Michael Jackson's album was called Bad because there wasn't enough room on the sleeve for Pathetic."

Now, we sum up all of that - every withering put-down and carefully targeted barb - into the one unimaginative catch-all, the ubiquitous 'douchebag'. Manners do not, as William Horman, one-time Eton headmaster, believed, maketh the man. But, boy, they smooth over interacting with him.

Sunday Independent

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