Bring back the polite state

Good manners have become unfashionable. It’s thought authoritarian to point out that someone’s behaviour is bad, that there is a right and a wrong way to do things. Being called judgmental is an accusation. There were good reasons for this. Many of us used to be judged by who we were, not how we behaved.

But in the last century, we saw an explosion of personal freedom, which enriched our lives beyond measure. However, we have come to value individual freedom far above the collective good. As a result, we are in danger of having no manners at all.

It is simply not illiberal to object to gangs of kids barging along the street pushing people out of the way, 4×4 roadhogs selfishly blocking up the yellow criss-crosses, stretching across someone to get the ketchup while they’re eating, swearing at traffic wardens, drumming until 3am and flocks of hen party ladettes dominating restaurants with screeching profanities.

After the Selfish Revolution in the Eighties, better-off people just shut themselves away behind their garden walls and moaned about the chav-nots. But there are ill-mannered people across all classes and ages. And it’s not enough to grumble – we need to do something.

Let’s be clear. When we talk of manners, we are not talking about which way to pass the port or the correct weight and size of a party invitation. Such rules are just tripwires for the uninitiated. If you know them, you feel smug. If you don’t and someone points it out, you feel embarrassed. The notion of manners has fallen into disrepute because it has become encrusted by the gothic detail of etiquette.

Manners, as opposed to etiquette, manage the fact that there is more than one of us on the planet. They don’t change the world, they merely make it easier to live in. They reduce the possibility of conflict between us and demonstrate that we have an obligation to each other.

You open the door for me; I say thank you. We share a train carriage; you don’t scream down your mobile phone and dominate the space. I invite you to dinner; you bring wine. You drop litter; I point it out. Manners are a conscious balancing of our freedom and other people’s.

The greatest difficulty is in agreeing the rules and asserting our legitimacy in enforcing them. In our attempts to understand the complexity of social problems, we have gone to enormous lengths to recognise the differences between us.

But we have then fallen into a trap of dangerous relativism. Fearing to make judgments, we excuse other people’s appalling behaviour on the basis of little more than some misplaced sense of social justice, cultural difference or because of their background, material poverty or lack of education. This is patronising piffle masquerading as diversity.

Good manners know no boundaries of class, wealth, age, gender or race. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ in the array of their varying expression cross all social boundaries. ‘Please’ is universally polite, however it’s expressed. And ‘thank you’ is a gift in any language.

We know this but we have become scared of saying it because we think it means looking back to the age of our parents and grandparents, where the social rules were rigid, oppressive and, in many ways, based on fear and class.

We don’t want to revert to them. But we can learn from their experience. The Second World War left them with two powerful understandings. The first was a sense of unified national purpose which moves us still when we see the straight backs of the veterans on the anniversary celebrations, as much because we know we have never experienced that degree of national comradeship. And second, they lived after the war with the sense that sacrifice paid dividends.

It is dangerous to be nostalgic about manners, but I am struck, when we do experience moments of mass togetherness, by how much more considerate we become. When 250,000 people descended on Brighton in 2002 for Fat Boy Slim’s beach party, I remember walking home sober, happy and arm in arm with my boyfriend. A thuggish type shouted abuse, but before we could say anything several people in the crowd made it quite clear to him that that wasn’t what the evening was about. He slunk away, admonished.

We have got into the habit of thinking that it is not our business to challenge bad manners. We doubt our legitimacy because we don’t feel part of a crowd, the expression of a social force.

But in the absence of the old authorities on behaviour, we must be the authority. We have to temper our individual freedom. The collective good must become paramount, because there is such a thing as society. Manners, not selfishness, are the sign that we are living that.

ยท The Done Thing: Negotiating the Minefield of Modern Manners by Simon Fanshawe was published last week

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