Minding my manners
Tripped up by in-your-face formality, Kate Birch questions the over-powering presence of British etiquette
After a reminder from my mother this week to send ‘thank you’ cards to everyone who bought my children Christmas presents, I reluctantly posted 27 of the things.
I say reluctantly, not because I am ungrateful or rude, but because I believe there are easier, less expensive and more efficient ways of thanking people these days – a phone call, an email, a text, a Facebook message.
“It means so much more with a handwritten card,” announces my mother, who has never sent a text message, rarely logs on to email and doesn’t own a Facebook account.
Does such a gesture really mean more to people? Or is it simply an unwritten rule of social etiquette that’s well past its sell-by date? And while such a social nicety stinks of generations past, it also screams of being British, as I discovered on my subsequent search for those 27 ‘thank you‘ cards.
Not only does there exist at least one, often five, dedicated greetings card shops on every British high street but thousands of cards for every occasion… from congratulating you on ‘passing your driving test’, to commiserating you on ‘getting divorced’.
And people really are buying and sending them. Back in November, I received a ‘get well soon’ card after flu kept me bedridden for all of, well, two hours; and earlier last year, I got a ‘we will miss you’ card after just three days of freelance work.
However, it is the sending of ‘thank you’ cards that’s not just prolific, but seemingly paramount. Here in Britain, it is considered the very height of bad manners not to respond to even a minor favour with a written note of ‘thank you’. Right now, I’m half expecting to receive a ‘thank you’ card for my ‘thank you’ card.
Now, I say ‘bad manners’ but it’s not really manners because manners, as I see them, are inherently about being sensitive and respectful to others, which a text, a Facebook message or an email can also be, just as successfully.
The sending of ‘thank you’ cards therefore is really about ‘etiquette’… and British etiquette at that. It is what I consider a cosmetic code of practice, a veneer of polite behaviour based on social cues, the kind that decides what size your greeting card should be for the occasion, what fork you should use for what dish and how you should greet the many people in your life.
The last social cue can be particularly problematic. Since returning a year ago, I’ve been entangled in a number of excruciating encounters, involving attempts on my part to embrace and kiss in greeting a variety of people – my
There are hundreds of rules in the Unwritten British Book of Outdated Social Etiquette
son’s teacher, my hairdresser, my new neighbour – only to be knocked back, rejected, shunned. The teacher raised her eyebrows, the hairdresser nearly head butted me and the neighbour recoiled in horror.
It turns out that in the unwritten British pecking order, a handshake for the teacher, a nod at the neighbour, an air kiss for the hairdresser would have been preferable in the social stakes.
It’s all so confusing. I’ve had to write it all down – these expected levels of politeness and acceptable levels of intimacy – and to re-read and revise in order to avoid embarrassing myself or upsetting someone else.
There are hundreds of rules in the Unwritten British Book of Outdated Social Etiquette that I’ve had to commit to paper, from not sighing, moaning or tutting while standing in a queue (you should endure the wait with, if not stoic silence, then at least humour) to not showing any visible sign of emotion in any public place (one must bear sadness or heartache with grim resolve).
And just as you think you’ve mastered your manners, along comes the dinner party. A minefield of social mishaps underwritten by an incredible number of unwritten rules, the dinner party put me in quite a pickle just last month. Not only did I blow on my too-hot food (first eyebrow raised) and pour my tea into my cup before my milk (second eyebrow raised) but I asked a neighbour how much they had paid for their property (all eyebrows raised).
According to a survey by telecoms company O2 in 2012, money is Britain’s biggest social taboo topic, with 53 per cent highly uncomfortable discussing the state of their finances or what they earn, though discussion of relationships, politics and religion are pretty prima facie breaches of protocol, too.
My biggest dinner party crime, however, happened when a guest discovered the silver foil takeaway trays from my local Indian restaurant in the recycling. Despite having transferred the delicacies into my own warm dishes (Debrett’s latest Guide To Entertaining
Etiquette deems it perfectly acceptable to serve your guests a takeaway as long as you decant it into “suitable china serving dishes”) it appeared (courtesy of the highly raised eyebrows) that I had committed, not only a culinary crime, but an act of dining delinquency.
Thanks to my mother, however, I was one step ahead of my guests and rescued the situation. Yes, I had made ‘thank you for attending my dinner party’ cards for each of my guests – on paper I had recycled myself, written in biodegradable ink with a quill fashioned from the road-kill pheasant I had served up on a solid silver platter for dessert. It seems etiquette has its uses, after all.
Overworked, overwhelmed and over there... long-term Dubai expat Kate Birch misses
her maid, struggles with small talk and is desperate for someone
to pack her shopping