Posted tagged ‘etiquette’

Old dears

January 22, 2011

So how do you start your emails? Do you address your correspondent with ‘Dear Mary’, or do you say ‘Hi Mary’, or do you just launch right into the subject-matter? And when you’ve said what you want to say, do you finish with the traditional ‘yours sincerely,’ or maybe ‘regards’? Or do you just sign your name, or maybe not even that?

I think I do all of these things, depending on the topic and how well I know my correspondent. I have been known to send 2 or 3-word emails with neither salutation nor valediction; but I have also sent emails that were essentially formal letters dispatched electronically. But now, some commentators are suggesting that the use of ‘Dear’ in a salutation is out of date, and perhaps suggests a degree of inappropriate intimacy. Using ‘Hi’, or nothing at all, would be better, apparently.

For myself, I don’t see that emails need to be seen for these purposes to be totally different from letters and memos and notes. I guess most people still begin letters with ‘Dear Mr Smith’, but we have long stopped signing off with rhetorical flourishes such as

‘I remain, dear Sir, your most humble and obedient servant.’

Custom and conventions change, but there is also usually room for those who want to maintain a somewhat more traditional approach. I don’t imagine they are misinterpreted or that they offend anyone. Though, to be straight with you, if you ever receive an email from me that ends with the valediction quoted above, you can be sure I am being sarcastic.

Good manners

January 23, 2010

Partly prompted by a recent discussion here, I dusted off an old book I possess which is a totally invaluable resource on etiquette. The book, published in 1922 in New York, is called (what else) The Book of Good Manners, by W.C. Green. Absolutely no social situation that requires a proper personal response is left out here. So I am glad to be able to pass on the following extracts from the book, which should remind us all that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things.

Men calling on women – the importance of a hat. A man making a formal or brief call should carry his hat in his hand into the parlor.

Men shaking hands, dealing with gloves. At weddings, operas or dances, and on all very formal occasions, men wear gloves. In shaking hands with women on these occasions gloves should not be removed. But: A man with hands gloved should never shake hands with a woman without an apology for so doing. Unless the other party is also gloved, a man should say: ‘Please excuse my glove.’

Mother. A mother should receive an invitation for any function to which her daughters are invited, and should go and return with them.

Expectorating. Expectorating on the pavement is a most reprehensible habit. If it must be done, a man should step to the curb and expectorate in the street.

Street-cars and other conveyances. The old custom of a man giving up his seat in a street-car to a woman is being gradually done away with. This is due largely to the fact that women are now so extensively engaged in commercial business that they are constant riders at the busy hours, and thus come into direct competition with men.
A well-bred man, however, will show his manliness by giving any woman his seat and standing himself, as she is less well fitted for such hardships and annoyances. In giving his seat to a woman, a man should politely bow and raise his hat.

The same author, by the way, also wrote a book entitled The Etiquette of Sex Revealed in Plain English. I may have to look for that.

However quaint all the above may seem (and is, by today’s standards), there is still an argument that we should pay more attention to courtesy and manners, if in an updated form. Manners are a form of consideration to others and form part of the glue that holds society together. Our inability as a society to hold on to that concept has brought in its wake various types of anti-social behaviour which, often, targets the most vulnerable. The should not dismiss the idea of etiquette too easily as outdated Victorian conduct. Though maybe we should be a little less concerned with gloves and hats.

Common courtesies

August 2, 2008

I confess you may find this to be another of those posts on this blog that show me to be some ghastly middle-aged traditionalist. But here I go anyway.

This morning, as I was about to leave a shop, I saw an elderly man with a walking stick who was about to enter; so I stood back and held the door open for him. He walked past and grunted something, perhaps to me and perhaps not; and a couple of teenage girls who were watching had a fit of giggles.

And these days, almost every day of the week at some point I will see a group of youths, usually young men, standing around verbally molesting passers by.

Of course none of these phenomena are unique to our age, and as I have pointed out in other contexts, those who believe that there was once a golden age (whatever that may have been) are deluding themselves. But for all that, I do wonder whether the concept of ‘manners’ has peculiarly disappeared from our social environment at this point in history. As a young boy I went to a boarding school, and every menu for our meals had the words at the foot of the page, ‘manners maketh man’ (sorry, that was not yet an inclusive age in terms of gender). And then, some years later when I was studying for my driving test, the state-published booklet setting out driving theory began with the statement that at the heart of all good driving were the three ‘C’s: ‘care’, ‘courtesy’ and ‘consideration’.

If I bemoan the fact (if it is a fact) that we have lost a sense of manners, it is not because I am yearning to be treated with the respect due to my great age, or that I have some sort of old-fashioned desire for Victorian primness – though there is an interesting analysis of Victorian manners in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book, The De-moralization Of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1996). Rather, it is because I believe that manners and courtesy are part of the glue that allows us to have communities with a sense of community spirit. The basic premise of the idea of a community is that we feel concern for and solidarity with others; and it is hard to generate that condition if on the whole our attitude and behaviour towards others is one of contempt or even just disregard.

On the other hand, manners and courtesy will seem counter-intuitive to people if we do not provide them with the social infrastructures into which these concepts can fit easily. If we maintain local communities without social spaces and supports and without opportunities for young people in particular to make social contributions we cannot be surprised if people discover a sense of fun experienced on the back of other people’s discomfort. Society needs to get people’s respect, but it also needs to earn it. And if someone of my generation wants to be shown respect by today’s youth, we also need to show them respect.

My fear at the moment is that we treat ‘manners’ as some sort of outdated practice that we should now regard as vaguely embarrassing. We need to find a way back from that position, but perhaps we also need to foster a better understanding of what society – and community – really is.