Mind­ing my man­ners

Tripped up by in-your-face for­mal­ity, Kate Birch ques­tions the over-pow­er­ing pres­ence of Bri­tish eti­quette

Friday - - Leisure -

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

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