Saturday 13 April 2019
In the run-up to Christmas, the ladies are lunching in a department store. Present are Caroline Stow-Crat, Samantha Upward, Jen Teale and Eileen Weybridge. Now that Gideon Upward has retired, he doesn’t mind coming along to help carry the shopping and get the girls a taxi. Caro has borrowed Samantha’s Guardian, which has an article on modern manners.
“Isn’t it just politeness?” asks Eileen.
“And common sense?” says Jen.
"Manners are part of a system of power relations," says Sam. “The purpose of etiquette is to uphold the power structure of oppression.”
"Do you mean a code of manners is designed to keep others in their place?" asks Eileen.
"We think our whole age has been a progress from formality to informality and that this is a good thing," puts in Gideon. "Dating in the 60s, getting off at a party in the 70s. And now apparently young people are saying 'If only we had the formal manners of the 90s!'"
Caro reads aloud from the paper: "According to the Guardian, we should behave ourselves in pubs. Don’t crowd the bar, don’t jostle other customers, and attract the attention of staff with a quick lift of the eyebrows. There IS a queue at the bar, but only the staff knows everybody’s place in it. Honestly, the English are mad. How about forming an actual queue? Or getting one of those numbered ticket machines?"
Sam reads on: "Communal tables in restaurants are a 'horrific trend'. Be civil, pass the salt, but avoid 'pottering small talk'."
Jean continues: "And if you must bring children, they should be seen and not heard, and the restaurant should not be expected to make them special meals. Well, really!"
"Don’t quiz staff about their hairstyle, accent, tattoos," reads Caro. “But I’m surprised at the Guardian suggesting tweeting and emailing at the table is acceptable.”
“And they forgot to say ‘don’t drink too much',” says Jen Teale. “And we need etiquette on Twitter – people are so ill-mannered!”
"Perhaps we do need modern manners," sighs Eileen. "Can you think of any?"
"Bin the doggy-doo," says Jen. "And your chewing gum. And the rubbish you're about to leave on the beach."
"Avoid PDAs – public displays of affection," says Caro.
"But I love the way everybody hugs now," says Sam.
"I meant snogging in restaurants – I never know where to look. I've got some thoughts."
"Let's have them!" say the others.
"It is really beyond the pale to count someone else’s money. I mean people who complain that their single older relative is always going on expensive foreign holidays. How do you know he’s not travelling on the cheap and staying with friends? And you shouldn’t assume a single person is better off because they don’t have children to support – it costs more to live alone. And if Uncle Bob and Aunt Mary leave all their money, which presumably they’ve worked hard for, to the Cats’ Protection League – well, serve you jolly well right."
Eileen chips in: "You know, people are finding books in bookshops and then buying them from Amazon for less in the actual store, while bragging about it. The definition of bad manners!"
Caro continues: "Don’t send your Christmas cards too early – it looks needy. And there’s no way to tell if you’ve been dropped from someone’s list because if they’ve got one from you they feel they have to send one back. If you don’t get one back – did you put your latest address inside? I’m sure people used to send change of address cards – even in these days of LinkedIn and the rest they could be useful."
In any place of worship, don't read out loud faster than the minister.
And thank everybody for Christmas and birthday presents – these days probably by email or the dreaded social media, but thank them. If the chocolates were past their sell-by date, don’t tell them. If it’s not quite what you wanted/last year’s fad/unflattering, say nothing – but thank you.
And a tip when present-buying – does the recipient have anywhere to put the casserole dishes/coffee-table books/doorstop? Spare a thought for where they live and how they are going to get back there. Are they going to have to shlep the garden sculpture/table lamp/birdbath home on the bus? You may wish your friend or relative had the decency to get married, or a least live as if they were, acquiring a large house and giving dinner parties, but you can’t force this to happen by giving them a set of dinner plates for 12. You may think the giftee will be encouraged by a thoughtful donation of placemats/paper napkins/a fondue set, but he/she is more likely to pass them on to a charity shop. As a general principle – don’t try to live other people’s lives for them.
Back to the sordid subject of money – people like us try to force unmarried women to couple up because there’s no way you can keep up the middle-class lifestyle on one salary. And publishers are notoriously poor payers. Of course your dear friend Perdita doesn’t give dinner parties – she lives in a studio flat which is all she can afford. Perhaps her parents don’t have the inherited wealth you think they have – what did I tell you about counting other people’s money? Yes, perhaps if she gave dinner parties you’d invite her to yours and she might “meet somebody”. And she’d be advertising her cooking skills. Don’t forget men are quite dim – if a woman lives alone in a studio flat they assume she wants to “keep her independence” or somesuch waffle. So why not just invite her anyway?
If one of your friends has a famous ancestor or relation, don’t drag their name into the conversation, or spot a family resemblance, or gleefully tell others about the connection – in your friend’s presence, when they haven’t mentioned it themselves. In fact, if you and a friend are meeting new people, don’t tell the new people anything about him or her. Maybe he or she doesn’t want strangers to know that she’s written a novel, or won a prize at the local flower show. You may think “But I’d brag about it if it was me!”, but it’s not you. Perhaps you think that having a friend with a famous ancestor raises your status, but keep that to yourself. In fact, if you are about to introduce friend A to friend B, don't give B a pre-match briefing about A. Let B make up their own mind.
And when a friend or family member is ill or disabled, please refrain from trying to manage their condition for them. Let them set the walking pace – you may slow down too far. If they’re walking briskly, it may not mean they’re fine, they could be looking for somewhere to sit down. Don’t tell them how to get up out of chairs – offer them a hand! Don’t urge them to do things they lack the energy for. Avoid recommending alternative cures, or insinuating that they haven’t tried hard enough. Don’t tell them that their migraines aren’t migraines because they aren’t one-sided, or that they aren’t on the autistic spectrum because they can feel empathy. They are probably more informed about their condition than you are, who picked up a few ideas from an article 20 years ago. And don’t tell them that if they can walk a few steps they don’t need a wheelchair!
My grandmother used to tell us to butter and jam only the mouthful of toast you were about to bite. Somehow we stopped doing that, but why don’t we revive the practice? Stops you getting marmalade on your laptop and butter down your sleeves. Laptops at the breakfast-table are hardly comme il faut, of course, but I often breakfast at my desk."
"It's not just about what to say when meeting the Queen!" says Jen.
"When meeting royalty," Caro explains, "You’ll be told when and to whom you should curtsey. Put one foot behind the other and bend your knees briefly while bowing your head slightly – no need to bend right forward like Theresa May. Keep the back straight and the bum in. Sorry, Mrs May. If you can’t manage this, nobody will mind. A slight bow will do. But try to adopt a pleasant smile, rather than a grin. Another thing – curtseying was designed for a long, concealing skirt, and looks rather ridiculous in a mini or trousers. Plan your outfit carefully!
Sam feels Caro has held the floor long enough: "If you invite someone to stay overnight on the floor of your student bedroom, organise some breakfast, and, if they’re still around, lunch. I once stayed with a student and breakfast wasn’t even mentioned. After I made a fuss, I was given a slice of melon! When later I mentioned lunch, my friend waited while I stopped at a newsagent’s and bought a cheese sandwich – which I had to eat in the street."
Eileen adds: "If someone asks you for help, don’t tell them how they can do the thing themselves. If they ask you for the number of a taxi firm to drive them home from your house, don’t say: 'If it was me, I would have found out the number beforehand.' Pin cards from local taxis up in your hall. Your friend needs to get home – now is not the time to proceed with your plan to train them to stand on their own two feet."
Gideon says: "I hope it's not patronising to offer help to a woman? I mean, isn't this whole thing just an excuse to get out of doing anything for others? Call me old-fashioned, but if a woman is walking straight towards me along a narrow pavement, I chivalrously step into the gutter! And if we're walking along a pavement together, I take the gutter side."
"You don’t have to hide your pregnancy bump any more in a Mothercare smock with a Peter Pan collar, but apparently you shouldn’t “flaunt” it," says Jen. "I think this means you should pretend it isn’t there. Isn't that pointless?"
Sam remembers: "I know what's rude! When you throw a party in a shared flat and don't tell your flatmate because you hope he/she will be out. Or you throw a dinner party and don't invite your flatmate so that he doesn’t know whether to join in, retire to his room, or remember a sudden appointment and go to the cinema alone."
"When you take a chilled bottle of dry white wine to a lunch/dinner party," says Gideon. "And your hosts put it to one side and carry on serving something warm and sweet, and never open your contribution."
"Telling people 'I know where you could have got that for half the price'," says Jen.
"Whispering in public!" rejoins Caro. "This woman in the doctor's waiting room... When I didn't respond she just whispered more loudly! She was just asking if I was OK, but I'm getting a bit deaf."
"I do so agree!" says Gideon. "I tell people 'You'll have to speak up', and they just repeat what they said in a normal voice."
"Howard won’t have anything with a 'photo ID' on it," says Eileen. "He says the state intrudes into our lives too much already. I mean, we had to get all the dogs and cats 'chipped'! But what gets me down is the nagging – endlessly being told I eat too much and don’t exercise enough and I ought to eat kale and wear a 'fitbit'. I mean, what’s that if not intrusion into my life? And some people seem to positively like it – being nagged, I mean."
Gideon says: "I was always told it was 'impolite' to discuss politics. It means people can go on being racist and not understanding the issues because it’s 'rude' to put them right."
"There’s an unwritten rule that if two men get into an argument about politics, science or philosophy, women do not chip in," says Caro. "This is merely a territorial contest between alpha stag beetles (or animal of your choice). Another unwritten rule: if one of your acquaintance likes to harangue the company at length about the evils of vaccination, the charms of astrology or the fact that the earth is flat, it is bad manners to disagree with them. Especially if they are a man.
These rules should be broken at every opportunity."
More here, and links to the rest.
My mother in law used to think it showed you were upper class if you were really rude to shop assistants - put them in their place sort of thing. She was a snob and it caused lots of arguments! (via Facebook)
The woman - never invited back - who told me she was a vegetarian, but didn't tell me that she was allergic to eggs. "I'll just pick it out of my quiche," (she actually said this), sighing alongside an accompanying smell of burning martyr. "I don't want you to go to any trouble." (LW, paraphrase)
Visiting Americans were stunned at the rudeness with which the British upper classes addressed the unfortunates below them. (Great British Fictional Detectives, Russell James)
Stop making a fuss about how bad you are at pronouncing foreign names. Don't preface your attempt with a lengthy apology. It's deeply othering. If you encounter a name you don't know how to pronounce and you haven't an opportunity to ask, I strongly recommend you just do it. Thank people for their patience but crucially, just move on. At some point the jokes about being bad a pronouncing a name stop being about the pronouncer and become about how weird and foreign the name is. I know you feel uncomfortable and awkward and you don't want to get it wrong. But just move on. (@jeannette_ng)
Thanks for X product, which I’ve enjoyed using while committing Y task. Looking forward to seeing you during Z event. (Template for a thankyou letter from Daniel Mallory Ortberg)
An indignant friend tells me an anecdote about a woman on a bus who had put her bag on the seat (so that she was taking up two places). She didn’t move the bag even though he stood beside her without speaking for five minutes.
Unbelievably, in the 70s posh people still changed for dinner. We stayed with some grand people who assumed we were as upmarket as they were. Mrs Thing was quite annoyed that we hadn’t brought skirts to change into. “Couldn’t Mary lend you something?” Mary was about five foot two and a size 12. I was five foot nine and a size 16. (If you're a tall woman, people have a strange blindness to your real height.)
I stayed with my parents at a hotel on Loch Maree where all the guests dined together. The proprietress said nothing to me, but approached my mother to say “Could you ask your daughter to wear tights in the evening instead of bare legs?” At least I was wearing a skirt! Bare legs were still taboo in the 70s, though they became OK in the 80s. In the 70s it was only OK to go without stockings if you applied fake tan that smelled of biscuits and turned your legs orange.
Don’t overload your fork, says the Royal Butler.
In the 17th century bell-ringers were penalised for wearing a hat or spurs in the belfry.