ARE manners dead? Mobile phones, Twitter and Facebook may be killing off the old civilities and good graces – just ask former Radio 2 DJ Sir Jimmy Young, who last week called for “a return to politeness” on the airwaves – yet a new generation of etiquette gurus, good manners bloggers and self-appointed YouTube arbiters is rising to make old-fashioned protocols relevant today.
Their apparent goal: to help members of Generation Y navigate thorny, tech-age minefields such as e-invites, same-sex weddings and online dating – not to mention actual face-to-face contact with people they encounter in the offline world.
For instance, you may not think you need a tutorial on shaking hands when being introduced to someone for the first time, but Gloria Starr, a US-based image consultant, begs to differ.
“When you shake hands, it’s two or three times up and down – from the elbow and not the wrist,” Starr says in one of her 437 YouTube videos, helpfully bobbing her right hand up and down in demonstration. Then “smile and introduce yourself”.
Or how about the way to conduct yourself at the gym? Videos on gym etiquette are a particularly hot web topic of late, said Kevin Allocca, trends manager for YouTube. One video, ‘Don’t Be That Guy at the Gym’, shows five men demonstrating various sweat-soaked faux pas, such as the ‘meat head’ who grunts loudly each time he performs a rep, or the self-appointed ‘coach’ who offers unsolicited (and largely unwelcome) advice to other gym-goers. Posted this time last year, it has been viewed three million times.
No arena of modern life, it seems, is too obscure or ridiculous for consideration. An instructional website called Howcast.com has a popular channel on YouTube that tackles weighty issues like how to handle flatulence in yoga class or how to behave at a nude beach.
“If it would be unseemly to gape at that body part while it’s fully clothed,” the latter video instructs, “it’s downright rude to gawk at it undressed.”
On another video, one veteran of the fast-food industry proffers advice on how to act at a drive-in window (“Do not scream ‘hello’ as soon as you pull up to the speaker. Wait to be greeted”), while there are more than 500 videos on the momentous subject of how to set the dinner table properly.
But perhaps the fastest-growing area of social advice – one that has spawned not just videos but also websites, blogs and books – is the internet itself, and the proper displays of ‘netiquette’. There are YouTube videos on using emoticons in business e-mails, being discreet when posting on someone’s Facebook wall, limiting baby photos on Instagram, retweeting too many Twitter messages and juggling multiple online chats. “We’re living in an age of anxiety that’s a reflection of the near-constant change and confusion in technology and social mores,” says Steven Petrow, an author of five etiquette books including Mind Your Digital Manners: Advice for an Age Without Rules, to be published next year.
“Whether it’s wondering how many times it is acceptable to text a date before being seen as a stalker, or what the role of parents is at a same-sex wedding,” he says, “etiquette gurus are popping out from under tablecloths everywhere to soothe all those living in fear of newfangled faux pas.”
Such advice is dished out on websites run by protocol professionals like the dapper Thomas Farley, a US television talk-show staple, and in the online newsletter Dot Complicated, published by Randi Zuckerberg, the former Facebook executive.
“Many of these emerging etiquette issues are complicated because there are no clear-cut, black-and-white answers,” Zuckerberg says. A recent post on Dot Complicated dealt with how to respond to a request for money, something that Zuckerberg says she has had to deal with quite frequently. (Her advice: “Say no and say it quickly.”)
Young people “are getting sick of the irony, rudeness and snark that is so prevalent in their online lives,” says Jane Pratt, editor-in-chief of xoJane, a women’s lifestyle site where etiquette posts are a popular feature. “The return of etiquette is in part a response to the harshness of the interactions they are having in the digital sphere. Nice is very cool right now.”
The publishing industry is scurrying to catch up, with a flurry of new etiquette books. “Etiquette is a popular publishing subject right now because, yes, it’s true, good manners never go out of style,” says Christine Carswell, publisher of Chronicle Books, which will publish The Forgetful Gentleman by Nathan Tan next month.
Last year, three books that tackle such subjects were published: Henry Alford’s Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That: A Modern Guide to Manners, Philip Galanes’ Social Q’s: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today and Randy Cohen’s Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.
Other notable titles include Miss Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life’s Dilemmas, by Rebecca Smith, who claims to be a descendant of the Pride and Prejudice author, and What Would Michelle Do? A Modern-Day Guide to Living with Substance and Style, by Allison Samuels, who looks to the White House for guidance. The social quandaries seem to be endless. Are you obligated to respond to Facebook party invitations? Is it rude to listen on headphones to your iPod while car-pooling with work colleagues?
When Daniel Post Senning, the great-great-grandson of Emily Post, was working on the 18th edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, he found it impossible to cover technology in a single chapter. Instead, he devoted an entire book to it, with Emily Post’s Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online, released this month. The book tackles questions such as whether one should announce a serious illness on Facebook. (Yes, Post Senning says, but medical updates should be confined to close friends and family.)
Even the new gurus who position themselves as the embodiment of old world civilities – currently fashionable, thanks to Downton Abbey – feel obligated to tackle 21st-century conundrums.
Charles MacPherson, who runs a school for butlers in Canada, has written his first book, The Butler Speaks: A Guide to Proper Etiquette, Stylish Entertaining and the Art of Good Housekeeping, to be released this month. An authority on such antediluvian rituals as spooning caviar, MacPherson nevertheless finds himself pondering if one may keep a mobile phone on the table during a dinner party, if the four-year-old is at home sick with a babysitter.
“It is never OK to leave your cellphone on the dinner table,” MacPherson says. “If you must go out and anticipate a call, first inform your hostess of the situation and keep your cellphone on vibrate and in your pocket or on your lap. In the event that it does ring, excuse yourself from the table – don’t explain why, just a simple ‘excuse me’ – and leave the dining room before taking the call.”
Meanwhile, there is a retro allure to etiquette that appeals to twenty-somethings, says Pam Krauss, publisher of Potter Style, which in September releases Modern Manners: Tools to Take You to the Top, written by long-time etiquette expert Dorothea Johnson with a foreword by her granddaughter, the actress Liv Tyler.
“There’s a whole generation of young people for whom etiquette, much like cooking, sewing and other ‘home arts,’ was not passed down by their parents or grandparents the way it would have been in years past,” Krauss says.
In some circles, old-school manners, like vinyl records and trilby hats, are ripe to be reclaimed by young urban tastemakers says Brett McKay, founder of lifestyle blog the Art of Manliness.
“There’s this idea in sociology that every generation rebels against its parents’ and makes friends with its grandparents’ generation,” McKay says.
“You see that with Generation Y dressing like Mad Men, and you see that with etiquette. The baby boomers were about ‘let loose, be who you are’. The ‘greatest generation’ was more formal, and people want to embody some of those grandpa values.”
Young women in the DIY demographic have also shown a new interest in manners, said Grace Bonney, the founder of Design Sponge, a home decor blog with a new weekly etiquette column. Etiquette posts on things like social media dos and don’ts have attracted five times as many comments and ‘likes’ as many other posts, she says. “I think people are starting to see that it can be rewarding to put time into any effort that makes people feel more welcome in your home, whether that’s a great meal, learning to arrange flowers or just general etiquette for being a good host,” she says.
It is an open question whether the renewed interest will signal an actual shift in behaviour or if, like the latest diet books, the latest crop of etiquette guides will just gather dust on shelves. Good manners take work, after all. “
We don’t struggle for good intentions,” says Tan, the Forgetful Gentleman author.
“We struggle converting our good intentions into action.”
Debrett’s Guide to Entertaining Etiquette
Old fashioned etiquette is back with a raft of new titles, blogs and online advice. Debrett’s has been dishing out solutions to social quandaries since 1769 but its latest guide brings it bang up to date with the social mores and manners of the internet generation.
HOW TO CATER FOR THOSE ON DIETS, WITH ALLERGIES OR INTOLERANCES
Debrett’s warns the host and hostess with the mostest to check their cheese biscuits for peanut traces as anaphylactic shock is a surefire way to social ostracism. Brushing aside allergies and medical conditions with a dismissive “Hugo’s always been a faddy eater, it’ll be fine” is never acceptable. Of course if guests fail to point them out when they RSVP and fall foul of your re-heated shop-bought finger food selection, they have only themselves to blame.
There is practical advice for those unlucky enough to find themselves entertaining “a pescatarian, a vegetarian, a vegan, a guest who is lactose intolerant and someone with a peanut allergy” (Oh for the days when everyone simply tucked into their pheasant and demurely spat out the shot without comment). It suggests “eschewing a main dish and opting for a mezze of mixed delicacies” with vegan dhals, hummus and safe foods involving bulghur, brown rice and soy sauce.
Calling for a takeaway is perfectly acceptable says Debrett’s, although pretending you sweated over the wok or tandoori yourself is a no-no. It suggests you allow guests “to name their cuisine of choice” – if they demand a KFC Family Feast, it serves you right for not having any bulghur and brown rice in. “Takeaways should be decanted into suitable china serving dishes,” (classy, but isn’t the lack of dishes the joy of takeaways?) and we’re told “the host should foot the bill and tip the delivery person”, thereby avoiding unseemly squabbles over who ordered that extra naan.
THANK YOU LETTERS
E-mails are a perfectly acceptable way to show gratitude says Debrett’s, but it stresses that “in the digital age a handwritten note will always look spontaneous and heart-felt”. We suggest fountain pens and Basildon Bond if you want to be invited back.
Anyone who’s been to T in the Park knows that glasses, vuvuzelas and gazebos are a no-no but have they considered Debrett’s suggestion of a wheelbarrow for transferring gear from car to campsite? It’ll also come in very hand for transferring Big Tam after his terrible mudslide injury.
It also recommends that festival-goers “embrace the unique unity that music festivals create”, and says it’s a good idea to “introduce yourself to your neighbours and invite them to socialise with you and your party.” Their injunction to “be friendly to strangers and be willing to share – food, drink, sun cream, umbrellas and blankets” could be the only thing between you and the first aid tent when someone staggers up and demands your crate of Tennent’s. Remember people, it’s nice to share.
Dating has been changed forever by cyberspace and asking someone out by text, e-mail or online is perfectly pukka say Debrett’s. However, it stresses that a date is with another person, not your mobile and etiquette demands it is switched off, banished from the table and absolutely no furtive fiddling.
The inviter should pay, on a first date at least, and if you’ve been ensnared by their sophistication, a swift follow-up text, e-mail or phone call is in order. For a brush off, it’s a polite, “Thanks for a lovely evening, let’s do it again some time”. Here, we must demur, Surely such politeness can only lead to raised expectations, disappointment, and a very ungragious smack in the kisser?
• Debrett’s Guide to Entertaining Etiquette, £20, Simon & Schuster