Just how easy is it to be polite these days? Judging by a day or two in the capital, with doors banging in my face and folks yelling on phones in restaurants, I’m going to go with ‘not very’.
Still, I’m no angel in that department myself: I cycle (ahem) ‘defensively’, swill pints and I swear like a sailor in the dentist’s chair. Maybe, I thought, it’s time to see if I can mind my Ps and Qs for a few days. See how the other half lives.
Letting people walk through doors first, allowing motorists to pass, responding to each and every email; people, it’s all very… time-consuming. The worst bit? Nobody was even all that appreciative of these gestures.
But then I realised that that’s sort of the point. Manners are a little bit like electricity. They ensure the smooth running of the world, yet we only ever really notice when they’re not there.
Yet etiquette has gotten something of a bad rep of late. Manners might seem old-fashioned; the finicky rituals of a time gone by. Besides, we’re too busy for politeness.
The famous Lucie Clayton finishing School in London taught ladies-in-waiting the finer points of art appreciation, hostessing, dressmaking and silver polishing.
It’s telling, however, that the school shape-shifted in the mid-Noughties into another firm: Quest Business Training.
There’s not much call for silver polishing skills these days, but in a world where personal space barely exists anymore, etiquette is more necessary than ever.
Manners aren’t just there for the Kate Middletons of this world. They’re there for one reason only: to upkeep a civil society, so that we don’t become barbarians. Yet the rulebook is due a 21st century revamp; out with the curtseying and knowing where the fish knife goes, and in with the Twittiquete and driving politely.
“Manners are so important simply because from a physical point of view, were all on top of each other and we need to be respectful of people’s boundaries,” explains life coach Judymay Murphy (pictured right; www.judymurphy.tv).
“Manners work on an emotional level. If you look at Japanese society — one of the most polite in the world — they are squashed into trains at rush hour so they have to be polite, to step back and deeply bow to each other, to counteract that.”
Yet modern life — and technology in particular — often gets in the way.
“Good manners is definitely something that’s being lost in everyday life,” observes Ursula Stokes, whose agency offers deportment classes (www.ursulastokes.com). “I was in a restaurant recently and every member of one family were on their phones.
“Not one of them was having a conversation with the other. Table manners are another thing that seem to be dying slowly. It’s even more shocking in a workplace where if you do have a complaint and you manage to get someone on the other side of the phone, they’re often incredibly rude.”
Professional development consultant Fiona McKeon (www.bizworldireland.ie) agrees that manners have fallen by the wayside in modern-day Ireland: “It’s just that people think there’s no need for them anymore, and people are out of practice,” she asserts.
“Because of social networking and various devices, we’re more independent of each other. We don’t have to talk to others on public transport, and it’s simply easier to ignore the needs of others. We’re all solo runners, at liberty to conduct themselves as they wish. But in a way we’re all at fault, and we’re all busy. I know in my own house for instance, mealtimes aren’t what they once were.”
Now 28 years in business, Stokes teaches personal development classes to children and teenagers, but has recently noticed an upswing in Irish businesses seeking out her services, too. Bosses are sending their staff back to charm school; realising perhaps that in a tough marketplace, bad manners are the difference between flourishing and failure.
“People want their staff to be at the top of their game,” she says. “They want to know how to conduct themselves, dress themselves and how to take complaints on board.”
Business Etiquette coach Pamela Fay (www.pamelafay.ie) has also noticed a rise in business in recent years. “I found that pre-2006, a lot of people didn’t worry too much about customer service and etiquette, but since 2008 I’ve been really busy because people are finally investing in that area. Ireland is a tiny place, and we live and die by our reputations.”
Adds McKeon: “It’s very simple: it pays to be nicer in a business setting. You have a much happier setting if you treat people as you would treat yourself. In an interview setting, you shouldn’t distract a potential employer with bad grooming, poor diction and poor communication. They’re a distraction from your message and your personal ‘brand’”.
McKeon also notes that she comes across several young dynamic types with CVs buffed to a high shine… that are crucially missing those vital social skills.
“Good manners don’t automatically come with the letters after your name… in fact in many cases I find quite the opposite,” she observes. “This is where family values really shine through.”
The workplace aside, good manners are a touch useful for closing the deal elsewhere, too. Matchmaker Avril Mulcahy (pictured above, www.avrilmulcahy.com) asserts that bad table manners are often a first-date deal-breaker: “I got a call from a man whom I had set up on a date with a doctor.
“His first reaction was ‘her table manners were atrocious. She was eating food from the knife’. He was like: ‘How could I ever take this girl to a social gathering?’ Another client — this time a woman — picked up on the fact that her date had talked really rudely to the waiter. Her reaction was, ‘if he’s like that on the first date, what must he be like the rest of the time?’”
Now that the dating game has changed beyond recognition, Mulcahy suggests a few basics for the times we live in. Chief among her dating gripes is the person who doesn’t reply to texts or calls after a first date. “What’s the point in playing hard to get? In my opinion that’s just plain rude,” says Mulcahy. “Worse again is not replying if you’re not interested, in the hopes that the other person will get the hint. Instead, the right thing to do is to say something like, ‘I really enjoyed our date, but I just don’t see romance between us, and all the best in your search’. It’s just being respectful of the other person.”
The basics of plain chivalry go a long way on a date, too… even if the concept itself has probably had its day. Originating from the French term for ‘horseman’, chivalry existed when the public consensus was that women needed protecting. They were, in a word, deemed too weak to open doors for themselves. During the first waves of feminism, chivalry was among the first casualties. So where are we at now?
“I think we’re at a stage where women know that we can open doors for ourselves, but we are happy to allow men to do it,” says Murphy. “The thing is, many women still see a man opening a door for them, and think we’re back in the dark ages.
“They think it’s disempowering. But in business terms, we’re happy to delegate when an assistant makes you a coffee or takes your phone-calls.
“They’re not suggesting that you’re incapable, but you are grateful for that burden being taken out of your life. I think we’re possibly oversensitive to what certain gestures mean. But the thing is, I will be on the Tube and give my seat to whoever needs it.”
Emer Delaney, one of the co-ordinators of the Irish Feminist Network (www.irishfeministnetwork.org), is also less than enthused about the gender connotations of chivalry. After all, it hints that the onus is largely on men to uphold etiquette.
“Chivalry should be a courtesy that should be offered to all people,” she explains. “Taking gender out of the equation, people should simply be more considerate of each other. It’s old-fashioned to think that a man should pay for a meal simply because he is a man. Personally, I would hold open the door for anyone, and I’d hope they would smile and say ‘thanks’”.
Despite instructions on how to get out of a car nicely, fill a champagne flute properly or serve only from the left, only one rule really counts these days: ‘Do unto others as you would like done on to you’. After all, as Florence Hartley’s definitive tome, The Ladies’ Book Of Etiquette, rightly says, “True politeness is the language of a good heart”.
It may have been written in 1872, but when Hartley writes that ‘the polished surface throws back the arrow’ it’s as good a guideline for today’s
dog-eat-world as any.