This is not actually a repost – it just feels like it. It is in (as Sean Layton so correctly said of my early posts) a different voice – although, I hope, still identifiably mine. It has been in my drafts forever, but each time I prepare to publish it, something else comes along and it gets put back. I don’t know why. I like it. I’m sure if I was to write this today, it would be slightly different – although that is by no means certainly better. Anyway, I read it through this morning and it made me smile, so I decided it was definitely going to be published today. I hope you enjoy it…
Manners, etiquette and polite conventions are fluid and evolving, dictated by such factors as history, social class and common usage. They develop in response to the changing circumstances of our lives: smoothing the sometimes turbulent waters of social interaction and applying the calming oil of respectful custom onto the waves of conflict and misunderstanding; like a gob of cooling raita on the ebbing sting of a mutton vindaloo. New challenges constantly emerge and the moral dilemmas with which they present us require time and space to allow new social practices to become established and accepted. Arguably it is our use of the mobile telephone that has driven the most wide-ranging changes to our views of what we consider right and wrong when interacting with others, so, as I begin my investigation into 21st century common courtesies, perhaps I should start by describing some of the contemporary mobile phone-related civil practices that I have myself experienced and which, I believe, are considered de rigeur – at least in my neck of the woods:
• When listening to music through your phone, it is considered necessary to remove only one ear-piece before engaging in conversation. It is not necessary to turn off the music or to turn down the volume.
• It is acceptable to break off a face to face conversation in order to answer an incoming call providing you say ‘I must take this’, before ignoring the person with whom you were previously conversing. That person is expected to stand, unmoving whilst you carry on a loud or (perhaps worse) whispered conversation for what could be several hours. It is considered ‘good form’ to mouth “Sorry” to the person waiting for you every couple of minutes during the call.
• It is considered proper behaviour to say “You are on speaker-phone,” immediately after coaxing an indiscrete disclosure from a work colleague and broadcasting it to the whole office.
• Whilst it is wholly unacceptable to loudly discuss your partner/sex life/bowels with a friend when you are together on a train or bus, it is quite acceptable to do so over the phone, especially if they are on holiday in the Seychelles and you have to shout very loudly so that they can hear you.
Which brings us to the location of a morass of modern etiquette dilemmas; public transport. When, for instance, is it polite to catch a fellow passenger’s eye; smile; speak; offer your seat to somebody who is obviously struggling ? The answer to the first three is probably ‘never’, the answer to the fourth is ‘you have to be kidding’: the ‘strugglee’ would have to be incredibly sharp-footed to get into the proffered seat ahead of the 13 other more able standing passengers, who would gladly trample their own grannies in order to get there first. Best just to keep your eyes down and interact with no-one. If you are feeling hot, or you need a bit of space, simply rock back and forth and mumble softly.
Should somebody ‘jump’ the queue ahead of you whilst you are waiting for a bus, it is permissible to say “Excuse me, there is a queue, you know.” If they ignore you or become aggressive, it is customary to examine your finger nails intently before biting off an imaginary ‘snag’. When the queue jumper eventually turns away, you may stare sullenly at the back of their neck.
When meeting a person socially for the first time a handshake is generally considered the correct mode of greeting. On subsequent occasions, a hug is acceptable. The man-on-man hug should always be accompanied by exaggerated back-slapping. A squeeze of the cheek accompanied by “Allo Choochie” is seldom appropriate.
Much modern social intercourse is centred around the public house. When visiting the pub with a group of friends, it is customary to join in ‘the round’: a semi-formal arrangement in which each person in the group pays for a ‘round’ of drinks for everybody else in the group in strict rotation. Being part of a ‘round’ means that it is not generally acceptable to change what you are drinking dependent upon who’s paying for it, even if they’re loaded. If you drink half pints, you cannot pay for just half a round. It is not acceptable to announce that it is your round when everybody else has a full glass and, as nobody at that point is likely to want another drink, offer to buy crisps instead.
Touching-up lipstick is (just) acceptable, as is refreshing other make-up during a meal as long as it is between courses. Plucking hairs from the nose is not. If eating at a friend’s house, it is not considered ‘good form’ to ask your hosts for a tea spoon in order to scrape the dog-shit from your soles, even if it was their dog that did it. The shorts/socks/sandals combination is never acceptable at a dinner party unless you are under ten years of age.
Finally, the course of normal social interaction will, at some time, lead you inexorably into the minefield of small-talk. The formalised awkwardness of such occasions may lure you into saying things out loud that you have not had time to run by your brain first. So, in ending this brief guide, please allow me to offer a short list of phrases that should never be uttered, even in the most mind-numbing of circumstances:
• “Blimey, what have you been eating?”
• “I don’t think it’s infectious…”
• “I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I just tied the end and dropped it behind their settee…”
• “I’ve still got the scab in a packet somewhere…”
“Say you’re sorry. No-one says you have to mean it.” Jeff Green
“It was a delightful visit; perfect, in being much too short.” Jane Austen