10 December 2020
The return of manners?
By Lynda Goetz
One good thing Covid may have done for society is to bring back respect for others (at least to some small degree) and, in so doing, a welcome return of good manners. Manners are something which have fallen by the wayside in the wider population to a large extent. Whilst the word ‘respect’ has been bandied about with increasing frequency, actual respect for those around us appeared to have fallen. How many people actually received an apology when they were shoved aside in a crowd by someone in a hurry? How often did we see people coughing without putting their hand over their mouth or sneezing without producing a handkerchief? These used to be small common courtesies followed by many and taught from childhood. Over the last few decades these small ‘politenesses’, an indication of our awareness of others, seemed largely to have disappeared. With the arrival of Covid, the reasoning behind so many of them has perhaps made people think, fall into line and remember their manners.
The Scottish Government apparently doesn’t think so. They have, at taxpayers’ expense (with a price tag Nicola Sturgeon admits she is unaware of), produced a Covid guide to Etiquette and Pandemic Politeness, which has been received in most quarters with sneers, mockery and accusations of ‘nanny state’ tactics. This seems somewhat surprising as government tactics across the UK (and elsewhere for that matter) appear to take the view that we are not capable of deciding how to behave in the best interests of ourselves and others. Why should the question of manners be exempt from state interference?
The SNP government’s guide, which was published on Monday, is ‘a modern light-hearted twist on traditional etiquette guides’ and ‘has been developed to support people to follow the rules and stay safe, and provides tips on what to do and say to avoid creating tension.’ Well, precisely. It always was, I believe, the essence of etiquette guides to advise on what to do and say ‘to avoid creating tension’. Admittedly these guidelines change with the times, but a return to an understanding of how to behave in general could be very welcome. This belief is shared by The Cumberland School in Plaistow which according to news items this week has hired Laura Akano of Polished Manners to help some of their brighter students win places at prestigious schools.
It may seem a little odd to those who consider that modern life is all about equality and that class inequalities are highlighted by ‘posh’ manners, but, as Victoria Lambert points out in her Telegraph article on the subject, ‘Jobs – the interesting, high-paying ones – will go to those kids who can code and have charm’. Charm, as she defines it, is also etiquette, manners or polish and it does open doors. Why level down when you can level up? Understanding and using the old-fashioned courtesies should not be limited to the upper and upper-middle classes. It is a way of respecting those around you, of appreciating that they do not want or expect to have your germs sprayed over them when you sneeze or cough; of recognising that although we all have to eat, sitting next to someone who is crunching food and chewing with their mouth open is an unpleasantness which can and should be avoided; that a napkin is a useful thing with which to wipe your mouth (rather than using your sleeve) and that folding it nicely is simply a matter of presentation –something taken quite seriously these days anyway; that speaking with your mouth full not only sprays food, but also germs around and that writing a simple thank-you letter for a present, a party or a weekend stay makes the recipient feel that their efforts were appreciated.
The list goes on, but as Celia Walden suggests in her Telegraph column this week, perhaps one should add to all the traditional good manners a few more appropriate to the times and current generations. For example, she suggests there should be no phones at table; if you are visiting, ring the doorbell rather than using your mobile to say you are on the doorstep; she also believes (possibly, as she acknowledges, contentiously) that boys should always help a lady with her bags. Ms Walden considers that the most toxic thing in our society is not masculinity (a subject on which she has written in the past and which of course has been in the news with the Eton free speech row) but bad manners. She is almost certainly not the only one with this view and perhaps now is an opportunity to redress this situation and bring back good manners as a universal benefit to society. Personally I would prefer it to happen without legislation, but perhaps we might just have to put up with a government guide? Is there enough money in the kitty?