This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014).
Manners. A dreaded word to many children, especially those from a stricter upbringing to whom phrases such as “get your elbows off the table!” will be all too familiar - or was that just my rather proper grandmother? In my house, manners were drummed into us from an early age so that pleasing and thanking were as natural to us as every other word in our continually extending vocabulary.
Frustrating as it was while growing up, manners and etiquette are two of the most important factors in forming the cultural identity of a nation. Good manners dictate social norms and behaviour on a socio-cultural level, within separate classes, groups and cultures. They also ground us to our sense of belonging. The manners that are instilled in us from a young age remain with us throughout our lives, signifying our social level and class, as well as giving an indication of our origins.
Although increasing globalisation has meant the social differences between countries have become increasingly blurred, our cultural diversity – much of which is predicated upon codes of etiquette - has largely remained in tact. When we step outside the comfort of home cultures and explore an entirely different way of being, suddenly we realise just how diverse our lives can be - and find ourselves thrown in at the deep-end.
Having recently moved from London to St Petersburg and then to Paris, I would like to think I have become rather au fait with social assimilation. Believe me when I say, though, that I learnt the hard way. Not realising I must say “Bonjour” before launching into my question, I faced the terrifying wrath of a Parisian sales assistant as I asked for help. She shot me down with military precision, dictating the rules of conduct at me like those early primary school days, leaving me sheepish and bright red in the face. Needless to say, I have never forgotten a greeting since.
If there is one thing that wrong manners most notably cause, despite the rules changing from country to country, it is total and utter social embarrassment. That dreaded faux pas can, in one swift move, reveal our lack of upbringing, knowledge of the local culture, or just complete ignorance. It reminds us that we don’t quite belong, no matter how hard we might like to think we are trying. Take, for example, something very simple such as smiling. In Britain, it is acceptable, if not seen as desirable, to smile at a passerby - adding a nod of the head only serves to increase the pleasantry. In shops, it is encouraged to smile politely at sales assistants. Hell, we even smile sweetly and apologise when someone does wrong by us. It’s in our nature. Similarly, in America, if you’re not constantly smiling, then there is something clearly wrong with you. Think Disney - the smile is almost symbolic.
Yet take this harmless turn of the mouth to Russia and suddenly the tables have turned. Smiling in public at people you do not know is seen as wholly unacceptable and unnatural. So much so that those witty Russians even have a saying (which is much nicer in the original language) that equates to “he who smiles without due reason, is the village idiot.” Charming. Then there’s Paris, the ice queen of Europe, where a random smile in the street or shop equates to insincerity. Yet if you forget to say “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame” before asking for assistance, you will be shouted down for it. The customer, as it turns out, is rarely right. And while it pays to be polite, an expressionless smile serves best.
Also laden with manners and etiquette are mealtimes; complex and ever changing, the process of eating differs from country to country; lest you should forget. In England, for example, it has traditionally been seen as respectful to only start eating once everyone is sat at the table, as well as compliment the chef and to eat everything on your plate. Contrarily, in many European countries, clearing the plate is a message to the host that there has not been enough to eat.
The issue of cutlery, meanwhile, has frequently left many perplexed at British mealtimes; the rule of starting from the outside and moving inwards is often whispered in loud hushes before tucking in. It quite often works as a social signifier as well: think Jack in Titanic as he sits down for a meal having never encountered so many dinner courses before. In Asia though, the rules change. The fork and spoon is replaced with chopsticks, and you are emphatically encouraged to ask for more food when offered seconds; turning it down would seem to be a cutting criticism of your host. Three different rules across two continents, and that’s just scratching the surface.
There is one rule that spans all continents, regardless of how much the younger generations may try to abolish it: swearing. When I asked a British expatriate living in Canada about the differences that he had encountered while there, the answer he gave was this: Canadians, it seems, like their across-the-pond friends, are very polite, say sorry to everything and disapprove of swearing. Not just any old swear words though; specifically, the one word that still manages to send a shudder of despair where stalwarts like ‘fuck’ now fail - the rather vulgar ‘c’ word (one I am personally far too well-mannered to utter, let alone print).
It would seem the rising usage of these words is part of a manners backlash from the younger generations in Britain and America. Perhaps this is because such strict rules are seen as stiff, old-fashioned and maybe - for the more thoughtful youth - as just another way to judge and categorise people. Language is one of the keystones of etiquette, or rather was, with certain phrases acting as indicators of a good upbringing. What better way to rebel than to use the same words that previous generations knew brought on a mouth full of carbolic soap?
As polite and well-mannered phrases get edged out and the ‘c’ word creeps its way towards becoming socially acceptable, is it fair to say we are banishing the last vestiges of old opinions? Ultimately, the boundaries of what we perceive to be rude are not fixed, but instead socially and historically determined. Something that can start as one thing may transpire into another. Language is a perfect example - it changes, unquestionably, and so do accepted meanings.
Take the word ‘cunt’ (okay, yes I said it), for instance. It shares its etymology with the Swedish word “kunta” and Middle Low German and Dutch “kunte”, and arguably the classical Latin “cunnus.” While the word can historically be found in place names and topographical features such as hills and valleys, its more frequent connection is with a woman’s genitals. Yet its early origins were actually intended as technical.
Only in more recent times has it been rebranded negatively, perceived as too obscene for women’s sensitive ears. Perhaps most famously, Shakespeare had the foolish Malvolio unknowingly spell out C-U-N-T in Twelfth Night. Chaucer spelt it “queynte,” but included it nonetheless. With the original meaning reconfigured, it was guaranteed its reputation as the most offensive swearword in the English language.
Then came feminism: a globally unifying force. Women reclaimed control over ‘cunt’, leaving such weaponised words in a pile with their placards. By 1969, the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ were published in the Penguin English Dictionary. The freedom of language evolved rapidly during this decade; times were changing again. Manners were evolving. Switch to March 2014 and the Oxford English Dictionary has added even more c-word entries, including ‘cunted’, ‘cunting’, ‘cuntish’ and ‘cunty’ - not to mention sub-entries such as ‘cunt lapper’, ‘cunt-bitten’ and ‘cunt-sucker’. No wonder the youth of today are far more flippant with its usage than their grandparents.
The changing meanings of words, and being able to understand their status on the manners spectrum, is even more difficult when the language is not your own. In Russia, saying “give me tea” is an acceptable command. There is no need for, “oh, could I possibly trouble you for a tea?” The Russians get straight to the point - no messing - and just ask outright for what they want. Any non-native Russian speaker who visits the country will start off feeling far too polite simply by saying “sorry” when someone walks into you. Over time though, visitors quickly get used to glaring and barking “coffee” at people. Upon returning to England, you can be guaranteed to never feel ruder.
The British are arguably the most prim and proper with their use of language. It is perhaps for this reason that it will come as little surprise when I say the British are the only nation to have a unique sense of the word ‘awkward’; it is a word that cannot be translated. The feeling remains attached to the country; one that, in many opinions, has the biggest sense of shame attached to its manner system. One word out of place or a swear word slipped in unannounced and social embarrassment will likely ensue.
Constantly changing languages, social landscapes and increasing globalisation mean it is hard to keep track of what can be considered good and bad manners. However, technology is fast becoming the biggest spanner in the manner works, as we, especially the young, become so addicted to our phones/tablets/laptops that we can barely eat a meal without having a nervous palm resting reassuringly atop our loyal iPhone. This cultural minefield is made even harder when political leaders also find themselves making faux pas (look no further than the Mandela-funeral-selfie-gate).
How can those strict guidelines for proper table behaviour, upheld for generations, possibly compete with an Instagram opportunity? Will we find ourselves redefining etiquette to allow for such moments - perhaps creating a timeframe in which we can take photos of our food, before politely putting our phones away and taking our elbows off the table? Or are we facing a life ahead where face-to-face social etiquette will come second to social media? Come to think of it, if we live our lives through these mediums – is there even a need for the old rules? Although this is perhaps an extreme, it is a point worth considering all the same.
We can certainly admit that the expansion of technology has had a definite level of influence when it comes to social customs. Other cultures are right on our doorstep and change is inevitable. Technology opens our eyes to these unfamiliar social norms - a positive, I am sure - but it also blurs the boundaries even further as communication becomes easier, ideas are shared more frequently across nations and the world gets smaller. Each new generation has played a part in changing the old views on what is right and wrong, and, accordingly, there are many traits now firmly on their way out.
Perhaps this is a good thing. The problem with manners in Ol’ Blighty is that they descend from a hierarchical class system, and are thus used by many to reject those deemed to be of a lower social standard. Would the world be a better place without these rules, bringing more equality across all sectors? Perhaps not. There is so much identity built around manners, as well as an indisputable social rulebook. Our constant fear of rejection relies on this guide - it makes it easier to navigate social situations, and, let’s be honest, the most basic ‘Ps and Qs’ are not that hard to master, are they?
As we continue to network across many continents and navigate around the questions of technology and travel though, maybe we should instead be thinking about starting to transition into ‘globalising’ etiquette. In creating a universal set of manners, it would unquestionably avoid a British person arriving at a dinner party in Paris and being chided for slicing the cheese in the wrong manner, or have the host declare the expensive champagne you brought as a gift to be undrinkable, because to him, honesty trumps the British notion of politeness. While manners are a way for us to judge people, they can also guide us and give us security in new situations.
That being said, although we could try to adapt our etiquette to a globalised world, I have to say I feel that there is maybe something more meaningful in our differences. While technology is a universal language and social media breaks down cultural boundaries, we really should continue to embrace and enjoy our own understanding of manners. After all, it would not be the same without the occasional tale of witty slip-ups to be enjoyed over a well-mannered dinner - with elbows off the table, of course.
Archive: PETRIe 66
Words: Charlotte Sutherland-Hawes
Image source: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie by Steven Klein for W Magazine, 2005