Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Etiquette's 21st Century Evolution

"An early need for friendliness: In a world peopled with strange creatures of fancy and haunted by terrifying beasts, primitive man soon found a certain comfort in association with his own kind. The lone huntsman: became a clansman, and in the clan were formulated the first laws of primitive society." - Lillian Eichler

By the 21st Century, we see that the vulgar, face a rude awakening...

The hand gets thrown up in front of the face, palm flicked outwards in a display of defiant aggression. It's a sign most of us are familiar with these days, thanks to American "talk" shows. Indeed you don't even need to hear the words - "talk to the hand, cause the face ain't listening ..." - to know just what is meant, and to know how rude it is. The baying audiences may whoop with joy, but in real life it's no laughing matter - especially if it comes from one of your children.
"talk to the hand, cause the face ain't listening ..."
Neither are the sight of women singing with their mouths full of KFC - the most complained about TV ad this year - or those moments when you're standing in a checkout queue waiting to be served but the cashier can't get on with her job because the person in front is chatting on a mobile while trying to pay for a fiver's worth of goods with a credit card.

And spare us from sharing the bedtime secrets of those people who wait until they're on a crowded train or bus to start up mobile phone conversations about their sex lives.

Sing with my mouth full of KFC? I dare say, you would not find me doing such a thing!

These may all sound like the moans of the middle-aged, yet it does seem that a desire to have a more well-mannered society is beginning to take root.  Those who complained about the KFC ad were mostly young parents trying to teach their children table manners. Tony Blair talks of reintroducing "respect" to the populace, and a host of books are hitting the shops exploring the minefield of modern manners and setting out new standards.

From Blaikie's Guide to Modern Manners, Lynne Truss's Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life, Simon Fanshawe's The Done Thing: Negotiating The Minefield of Modern Manners, and Manners from Heaven: The Easier Way To Better Behaviour For All The Family, it seems that authors are tapping into the impoliteness zeitgeist in the hope of sparking change.


So are we all ill-mannered louts or is it just the pace of life and technology which is to blame for a lack of airs and graces? Psychologist Cynthia McVey believes a loss of manners is, in some cases, more about changes in society than deliberate rudeness.

Fewer men ask a woman's father for her hand in marriage.
"Some of the traditional things which would have been considered good manners have gone. Gender stereotypes have changed. Perhaps the biggest change is that couples live together instead of getting married, so a man won't ask a woman's father for her hand in marriage, which suggested the father had power over his daughter.

"Men also used to walk on the road side of the pavement to protect women from splashes, and open doors for them. Now women have gained independence and equality. Some women are offended now if a man opens a door for them, which I think is ridiculous. "The class difference has also been eliminated so you don't get anyone doffing their cap at the master now. Automatic respect for our 'betters' has also gone."


She does say, though, that children's manners, especially table manners, have been affected by changes where now it is more common for youngsters to eat TV dinners than to sit around the table with their parents. "They are also exposed to different cultural practices, for example, people eating with their fingers or using chopsticks, which changes their perception of what is acceptable behaviour," she says. "But I think parents still try to teach their kids about the importance of please and thank-you."

  
"Why learn how to set a table, for example, when you never sit at one?" Sean Davoren.  




Author and head butler at London's Lanesborough Hotel, Sean Davoren, says that after three years of listening to children talking about their lives in etiquette workshops which he ran before writing his guide, he began to understand why their manners were so bad.

"Quite simply, they had never been taught them," he says. "In some instances, their lives don't require them. Why learn how to set a table, for example, when you never sit at one? Why say thank-you to a waiter if your parents never bother to? Why learn to eat with your mouth shut if the only thing looking at you is the TV?"


Thomas Blaikie, like McVey, believes it's a more a flexible approach to life which has brought about politeness pitfalls. He says: "Until recently, social conduct (as it was known) was illogical but at least there were rules: stand up when a lady enters the room; leave your knife and fork at six o'clock/four o'clock/nine o'clock, with the prongs of the fork turned down. Scarcely a trace remains of this labyrinthine world of manners. But the age of e-mails and metrosexuality has thrown up a new set of social dilemmas and our free-and-easy ways have left us in a vacuum of uncertainty and embarrassment."


In his book, Blaikie explains some of the problems and sets out some new rules. Of mobile phones in public, he says: "On buses, on trains, in shops, everywhere, mobile phones are a nuisance, aren't they? It isn't just the ring tones - why are all of them silly? - it's the sword clash of different conversations conducted at full volume: while one person is blaring away about last night's sex, another is having a huge set-to with their insurance company about a minor car accident, and a third is nit-picking their way through the discounts on offer from Thomas Cook."


The solutions, he says, are easy: "You don't need to shout. When phones were first invented, people thought they had to shout into them, since the people they were talking to were far away. But, after almost 130 years, we ought to know better."


He adds: "It really is impolite to be on the phone while paying for things in shops. Make your call quietly in a corner, then pay. If the phone rings while you are paying, ignore it. You are dealing with the person on the till."


Blaikie also has this advice on the increasing practice of erecting shrines to victims of accidents and crimes. "If you are laying flowers in a public place, remove the plastic wrapping. Return to take away the dead flowers. Permanent shrines are hard on the living, especially if beside roads or near houses. After six months they should be removed."

"People used to greet each other on the street primarily to reassure each other that there was no threat," he says. "People don't do that now here. But in Texas, where everyone carries guns, you'll find that they are all incredibly polite to one another." Edinburgh psychologist Ben Williams, who believes manners are about self-preservation. 
According to author Simon Fanshawe, though, "manners are not necessarily worse than they were, just different". "We have achieved a vast amount of personal freedom since the Second World War," he says. "But in the process, we have become selfish. And too often we have kept quiet about what constitutes good social behaviour, for fear of appearing judgmental. Which of us will challenge the litterbug, the 4x4 driver hogging the road, the commuter screeching into their mobile phone?

"We may have thrown over the old authorities but it seems we do want a new social authority that allows us to live at ease with one other. Manners provide one way of doing that. They are the discipline of an easy life."


Whatever the reason for the poor state of modern manners, Matthew Perren, store manager at Ottakar's bookshop in George Street, says there's a great demand for books on the subject. "I think a generation missed out on being taught about these things. People have got to a stage now where they realise that they don't know what the etiquette is in this or that situation and they want to know."


The final word on good manners goes to Edinburgh psychologist Ben Williams, who believes they are about self-preservation. "People used to greet each other on the street primarily to reassure each other that there was no threat," he says. "People don't do that now here. But in Texas, where everyone carries guns, you'll find that they are all incredibly polite to one another."



Main article from The Scotsman, 2005



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