Stop checking your smart phone – manners aren’t out of fashion yet

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

A man using an iPhone to send a tweet
Who has time for manners when there are important emails to check? Photograph: Getty Images

Manners have a PR problem. Leave to one side the vexed and probably unanswerable question of whether they are getting worse. John McEnroe, once tennis’s bad boy, captured the new conventional wisdom in his autobiography, Serious: “I thought tennis had had enough of manners. To me, ‘manners’ meant sleeping linesmen at Wimbledon, and bowing and curtsying to rich people with hereditary titles who didn’t pay any taxes.”

McEnroe’s argument is that his own “bad manners” had a noble effect. Bad manners are justified by talent and achievement. Good manners, in contrast, are damned by the antique uselessness concealed beneath the surface. Manners were the crumbling edifice of a rotten, snobbish and outdated system of values. They needed to be cleared away for a fairer, more accountable world to emerge.

For the word “tennis” in McEnroe’s quote, now substitute the phrase “the professional world”. You have a fair summary of how and why the public image of manners has collapsed. It also explains why bad manners are not only tolerated but often encouraged as a sign of professional competence. I am rude, impatient and self-important – ergo I am important, busy and successful.

Busy bodies

Instead of manners, we now celebrate busyness. Indeed, the same object that confers urgent busyness also causes the most rudeness: the smartphone. Who has time to be attentive and well-mannered when there are so many important emails to check? I sometimes suspect corporations pay a special category of employees not to do any work themselves but simply to rush purposely along office corridors making the real workers feel stressed and pressurised. To adapt Gordon Gekko’s adage about lunch in the film Wall Street: “Manners are for wimps.”

No wonder the Englishness of manners was one of the things McEnroe most hated about them. The French have romance, the Germans have efficiency, the English got stuck with manners. What hope is there for a country to have such a starchy, anachronistic self-image?

That is the starting point for Sorry! The English and Their Manners, Henry Hitchings’s fascinating and lightly erudite new book. Sorry! correctly identifies the fault line that exists in our feelings about manners. Are they essentially an artifice, a construction used to further our progress in the world? Letters to his Son, Lord Chesterfield’s famous 18th-century primer, stands firmly in this tradition. That is why Dr Johnson ridiculed him for teaching “the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master”.

The rival view is more optimistic. It argues that manners in their truest form reflect character, rather than obscuring it. There can be a concept of “natural” good manners. According to Jonathan Swift, “good sense is the principle foundation of good manners”. At their best, according to Edmund Burke, manners “aid morals”.

But when Hitchings argues that “manners are a means of depriving other people of their weapons of attack” he is surely writing about the more modern idea of charm. Crucially, where manners sound outdated, the stock of charm has never been higher. “He charmed me”, “a real charmer”, or the simple injunction “charm him”: it is now almost ill-mannered to talk too much about manners but we cannot get enough of charm.

There, difference between the two ideas is revealing about changing tastes. Manners, properly understood, are about the other person – not offending them, helping them to feel at ease. Charm, in contrast, is about your own effect – more especially, your own advancement. For all the pleasure it gives, charm can be used against people, to disarm and mislead. Where manners are tainted by their association with the unfashionable concept of formality, charm benefits from the popular idea that we are all just doing what needs to be done to get ahead.

Charm is the subject of two memorable moments in Brideshead Revisited. On each occasion, Anthony Blanche lectures Charles Ryder, the novel’s ruminative narrator, about the dangers of charm, whether you are a victim of seduction by charming friends or guilty of misleading others through your own charm. Evelyn Waugh’s startling suggestion in the novel is that charm is about presenting a pleasing front, an amenable veneer. The artist should be mining deeper truths. “I warned you,” Blanche tells Ryder, “I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. I warned you expressly and in great detail . . . Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; O great fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”

Man out of time

I reflected on the difference between charm and manners when I heard the news that Christopher Martin-Jenkins, the much loved cricket broadcaster and writer, had died. It sounds a weary tribute to say that we won’t see – or more aptly, hear – his like again. But many of the generous obituaries and tributes correctly argued that it would be very hard for a man like Christopher to achieve such a distinguished career in the media today.

Few suggested why. What it was about his style that defined him as unusual? The answer is the same thing that made him stand out as a broadcaster: his manners. He was far from uncharming. But when I introduced people to Christopher, they were usually struck by his courtesy rather than an overt expression of charm. He did not use charm to pursue his own agenda; his manners allowed those around him to pursue theirs.

Christopher’s manners were integral to his radio commentary – the patience with which he dealt with colleagues, the attentiveness he paid to the game. And yet he could not have been further from McEnroe’s caricature of amateurish incompetence. Far from being a sleeping linesman, he had one of the game’s sharpest pairs of eyes.

Manners have been on the wrong side of history for too long.