Wednesday 25 November 2015

Proper Deportment 2

"Well, he would, wouldn't he?"

Deportment is another of those things that have allegedly disappeared, like etiquette. OK, so we no longer learn to walk tall by balancing books on our heads, but it still matters.

In the mid-18th century, smiling showing the teeth was thought to be a vulgar affectation. In Scandal, Joanne Whalley as Christine Keeler raises her upper lip too high when she smiles and talks – it does something to the voice (makes it more nasal?). All the opposite of the stiff upper lip.

Sometimes a large, plain girl goes all out for personality – bright clothes and lipstick, clanking jewellery, very emphatic delivery with lots of face-pulling and eye-rolling, every sentence full of ironic use of words. Or an attractive girl pulls ruefully amusing grimaces the whole time and makes herself look ugly. The new girl on Antiques Road Trip is willowy and pretty but wildly over-enthusiastic, grinning, pulling faces and clapping her hands. Particularly grating is her mock bow when shaking hands. (But perhaps she's been told to ham it up.)

Upper-class men have very immobile faces (stiff upper and lower lip), but some upper-class women can’t say anything without laughing like hyenas and pulling faces. (There was a character in George Orwell's The Clergyman's Daughter who hung onto her schoolgirl mannerisms for too long.) It goes with shrieking “Find somewhere to park your bottom!” instead of saying “Do sit down”. They never say “Excuse me”, but “Can I just squeeze past?”

“Don’t admire your surroundings. Look faintly bored,” says Scotty to Danny in London Spy as they visit a gentleman’s club in Pall Mall. Those are upper-class manners – Stow-Crats take marble columns, gilded furniture and vast entrance halls for granted.

Upwards, on the other hand, treat the world as if it was a diorama or a museum. They are always looking about them and chirping “What a beautiful sunset!” or “Oh look – original Victorian ironwork!” Stow-Crats despise them for this, and so do Teales, who are mortified if their companions “speak loudly in public”. Jen can’t understand why Samantha wants to “draw attention to herself”, and besides, who's interested in some rusty old iron? Some cool young Upwards abhor this behaviour too – Chill! Don’t be surprised by anything! Please!

We have to say that “there are no social rules any more”, but a Times piece on body language goes into minute detail on social kissing, hands on backs etc. It condemns the possessive arm across the shoulders. “The forearm touch – supposedly entirely acceptable as a kind of first base for establishing a connection. Be careful of this one. It may be officially OK, but it can also be seriously annoying.” But apparently brushing against people as if by accident is effective. “Hand-holding is practically kissing.” And if there are no social rules any more, why are we so obsessed with correct checkout divider use?

I don't mind what anybody does with a checkout divider, but I do mind parents who shush their children constantly in public. Children naturally cry, scream, laugh, crow, and it doesn't bother most people. It’s the shushing that infuriates. I heard a controlling dad in a museum emitting a constant stream of “Ssh sssh ssssh Dougie Dougie Dougie no no no stop stop stop sh sh sh”. Perhaps Dougie had learned to ignore it.

People used to say that ballerinas “walked like ducks” with their feet turned out. And friends criticised me for “striding along” in town on my own. At school they constantly told me off for hunching, looking at the ground, and walking too fast. We weren't allowed to trudge, stomp, shuffle, or clatter. And we were supposed to walk everywhere with another pupil.

An early 20th century social reformer gave a home to city girls in the country, where she trained them to be laundresses. But she complained they were “listless and walked with their heads down”. (Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants). And lower-class women allegedly sat on the edge of a chair.

Samantha Upward and Caro Stow-Crat used to sneer at Jen Teale for smoothing the back of her skirt before she sat down. Jen doesn’t have so many clothes and couldn’t afford to keep buying new ones, so she looks after the ones she has. (Oddly, people made this gesture in the mid-60s when everybody wore pencil skirts and they didn’t need to – was it a hangover from the 1940s or earlier?) In the film Cast a Dark Shadow (1955) Margaret Lockwood’s obviously common character holds her hand out to be shaken too high and with an affectedly drooping wrist; she also hitches up her tight skirt before she sits down.

Why is it genteel to crook your little finger while drinking a cup of tea? Miss Manners (etiquette guru Judith Martin) says that original teacups had no handles. You held the cup by the cooler rim, but the cup itself (full of hot tea) was too hot to rest your fingers on. Another explanation is the smallness of many teacup handles – you can’t get all your fingers on them. Besides, you need to stick out your third and fourth fingers for balance. The etiquette blunder is to crook your little finger in an attempt to seem ultra-refined.

She apes the graces of the city,
Can frown and ogle; nod, forget...
But ah! Poor wretch, the native trace
Of vulgar birth, you’ll ne’er erase
Some absent shrug, unguarded phrase
Broad laughter, or unmeaning gaze,
These oft the mean extraction tell...

Some dudes “have the impudence of bowing to ladies whom they do not know, merely to give them an air”.
A well-bred person must learn to smile when he is angry, and to laugh even when he is vexed to the very soul.
To study the expression of the countenance of others, in order to govern your own, is indispensably necessary.
“Egad! I must not make a noise, because it will not be good breeding."

(Pierce Egan, in Real Life in London, recommends hypocrisy.)

Now that I am old and white-haired, still have a ridiculously posh voice, and sometimes walk with a stick, people treat me with exaggerated respect. They say “sorry” to me all the time, for no reason at all. Thank you, people, but really there’s no need to cringe. If you want to pass me, please do – but must you hunch, scuttle and throw me an apologetic look? And if I am singing in a group in public and you want to take photographs of these quaint people doing something eccentric – don’t. But if you must, please don’t hunch and grin while doing so.

My mother acquired a title when my dad was knighted and became a “sir” (way, way down the pecking order for titles). She hired a husband and wife as cleaners and they behaved very oddly – ducking as she passed, as if they were trying to make themselves smaller. The wife would even throw out an arm to cover her husband, almost curtsying, and barely speaking above a whisper. Mum ignored all this and was as friendly as possible – it worked in the end.

American writer Florence King once worked as a teacher – she hated parents to “kowtow” to her, especially an “embarrassing” grandmother “thrice my age who called me ma’am and kept bobbing up and down in near-curtsies”. (From the brilliant Wasp, Where Is Thy Sting?) I’ve even had a café proprietor bow and make a praying gesture when throwing me out. “We’re about to close!” – they clearly weren’t. Cafés don’t like single old people to sit over one coffee reading the paper or working. I’ve even had a waitress put a hand under my elbow to eject me – while fawning politely.

Some persons appear always as if admiring their shoe-ties. (Enquire Within Upon Everything)

When books of advice instructed youth to breathe deeply, stand tall and look people in the eye, perhaps they were really trying to say “don’t cringe and scuttle”. They also meant “don’t slouch, sneer and bite your nails”. But if you are 5ft 9in, “stand tall” may not be the best advice. Perhaps I should have stayed sitting down.

More here.

1 comment:

  1. With my background, we were told we had to have perfect manners or we would not fit in if we managed to move up in the world. And then you go home with some new posho friend from university, and find the family is lovely, but they behave in ways that would horrify your mother. Because they don't have to care...