Have we reached a crossroads in the long and distinguished history of good manners?
Is the progressive economic and technological environment resulting in our moral chaos?
Or have our good manners evaporated in the echo of a bygone era when children were seen and not heard; as Tim Lott wrote in the Guardian recently are good manners “an instrument of class preservation”?
I like to think I am reasonably well mannered, although I do admit I have forgotten a few of the less frowned upon habits, but the core ones remain and I in turn try to teach my sons what is good and what is bad.
But why are ‘good manners’ important and who ‘invented’ them?
CHIVALRY ON THE FIELD OF BATTLE
The concept of acceptable behaviour goes back hundreds of years, mostly confined to the field of battle when the line of command demanded obedience and servitude; and royalty where the ruler similarly demanded obsequious attendants.
In 1361 William of Wykeham, Clerk of Works and Surveyor to Edward III, and later to become Archdeacon of Lincoln coined the phrase ‘manners makyth man’ and 300 years later in 1608 Thomas Coryat was subject to considerable derision at the dining table when he brought back an eating fork from Italy.
But it was during the Age of Enlightenment towards the end of the 17th century that Britain saw the attraction of the French aristocracy’s ‘etiquette’ and it was Lord Shaftesbury who wrote a number of essays in the early 18th century giving his definition of ‘politeness’.
Philip Stanhope 4th Earl of Chesterfield wrote a number of letters to his illegitimate son advising him on the importance of polite behaviour and reinterpreted the French etiquette in 1737.
In his ‘Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman’ he instructed his son on how to behave to ensure social advancement:
“I would heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh”.
FROM ETIQUETTE TO POLITENESS TO GOOD MANNERS
The Victorian era saw a huge leap in the observation of good manners, from letter writing to the use of cutlery, and as the country’s social and economic prosperity continued, so too did our eagerness to embrace the importance of manners as being evidence of good breeding and social standing.
The structure of society up to this stage had been based on wealth and power; the two things combined forcing the majority of the population into a life of virtual bondage, obeying the rules without question and accepting their lot.
However, the 20th century brought with it major social changes and the rigid structure that the minority had maintained started to disintegrate as education and opportunities, previously the domain of the wealthy aristocracy, were accessible to the lower social ranks enabling them to make their way up society’s ladder.
But part of this social climb was the necessary adherence of polite behaviour and thereby good manners and for those people who wanted to raise their living standards and compete with the higher echelons of society, they had to exercise ‘acceptable behaviour’.
Thus with improved education and parental ambition, children of the 20th century were learning the importance of polite behaviour and good manners.
CLASS PRESERVATION OR MUTUAL RESPECT
But has 21st century technology and in particular Social Media not only crushed the structure of our country’s long held tradition of polite behaviour, but also undermined its foundations which will ultimately lead to its collapse?
Have we created a generation of ignorant and debauched youth who no longer see the benefit of Thomas Coryat’s fork when eating or the Earl of Chesterfield’s advice to refrain from being openly emotional; have good manners, as with good grammar become excess to society’s requirements or are we looking at the past through rose tinted glasses and it is just the inevitable rant of the older generation bemoaning the days of their lost youth?
To return to Tim Lott’s view on manners and polite behaviour, if by ‘class preservation’ he means a class of person who has respect for others and shows that respect through the medium of good manners, then I think we should do all we can to preserve that.
✔ Please & thank you
✔ Don’t point at people
✔ Eat with your mouth shut
✔ Cover your mouth when you yawn
✔ Don’t have loud conversation on your
mobile phone in public place
✔ Don’t be rude about someone
✘ Speaking with your mouth full of food
✘ Letting a door go in someone’s face
✘ Talking about yourself all the time
✘ Barging in front of someone
✘ Swearing in pubic
✘ Elbows on the table