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Off piste: A fortnightly series in which academics step outside of their area of expertise<

Off Piste: Courtesy calls

Kevin McCarron considers doggy bags and Debrett's, passing the port and choosing urinals, and why simple good manners really do make the man

Some years ago I saw a cartoon that depicted a sign at the entrance of a park that read "NO DOGS. NO ALCOHOL. NO BALL GAMES. NO LOUD MUSIC". Directly underneath this sign a young man is casually strolling into the park, a large vicious-looking dog at his heels. He carries a large plastic bag full of cans of lager and a football, and has a huge stereo system pressed against his ear. On his T-shirt is written "NO NOTICE".

I grew up in New Zealand and during the 28 years I have now lived in England, I have been fascinated by the subject of "manners", both good and bad. A lecturer in the English department informed me, a few days after the first sherry party I attended as an undergraduate at Westfield College, University of London, that I had "very good manners, seeing you're Australian".

I had no memory of behaving particularly well that evening (or of being Australian), so I could assume only that my good manners had manifested themselves to my surprised host in terms of negation and sublimation: I didn't drink all the alcohol, talk too loudly, swear incessantly, leer at the female students or persistently draw attention to my own and everybody else's bodily functions in colloquial Australian English.

Restraint of this type is no doubt admirable, and is certainly a form of good manners. Nevertheless, I believe that really good manners require positive action more than self-discipline and control.

Earlier this year, I gave a plenary address at a conference in Leeds. The theme of the conference was "coaching", and in the course of the lecture I noted that while words such as "coaching", "training", "mentoring" and "teaching" were often used interchangeably, there were considerable differences between them, as well as overlaps. I think the same is true of words such as "manners", "etiquette", "courtesy", "politeness" and "protocol".

The English, after all, are up there with the best in the world at being unspeakably rude with exquisite politeness. It is particularly striking, though, how often both the words "manners" and "etiquette" are used as synonyms.

When I googled "manners", I was informed that there were 333,000 results for "manners and etiquette"; it was not possible to separate the two words. Similarly, Amazon offers literally hundreds of books on manners and etiquette. Yet clearly the words are not synonymous; while there are overlaps, manners and etiquette differ from each other.

As well as being an academic, I work as a stand-up comedian. I would suggest that, in performance terms, etiquette is like acting, in the sense that the correct procedures have been written by somebody else, and direction has also been provided. Good manners, however, are like stand-up comedy: largely self-authored, fluid and totally responsive to the unique demands of the moment.

A thorough understanding of etiquette actually makes lesser demands on a person than having good manners does. Etiquette is prescribed, learned, sometimes ruthlessly deployed; good manners are flexible, sensitive and always designed to affirm the dignity and worth of the other person, not to demonstrate their inferiority. Good manners are extremely important in a small, overcrowded country like England; etiquette is far less important.

Fifteen years ago, I was asked by the British Council to lecture in Cairo and Alexandria on William Golding, an author on whose work I had written two books. In Alexandria, there was a formal dinner after my lecture. I was seated to the left of the host and on his right there was an eminent Egyptian professor of literature. I noticed that this professor had drunk at least six glasses of wine during the reception that immediately followed my lecture, and had drunk everything alcoholic within his reach during dinner.

After the meal, the port, according to etiquette, was passed to the left. I will never forget the look of despair on the professor's face as he contemplated his empty glass as the port slowly moved away from him, knowing that it would take an age to reach him, and that there might be only a few drops left.

I wondered then whether, had I been the host, I would have had the courage and good manners to pretend that I had forgotten the right etiquette, immediately passed the port to him then, as soon as he had filled his glass, "remembered" the etiquette, apologised to my guests and immediately passed it to the left. I like to think that now, certainly, I would have been sufficiently well mannered to ignore the etiquette given the particular circumstances.

It is bad manners, I think, to breach etiquette deliberately for no other reason than malicious iconoclasm. Etiquette is extremely important to many people and so should be respected, but it should not take precedence over good manners, which seek to alleviate distress and promote harmony.

Over the years, I have collected and read a great many books on manners and etiquette. All of them have been enjoyable; several instructive. I believe the English should immediately adopt the Scandinavian practice when having to squeeze past people in a theatre or a cinema of turning their backs to the stage or the screen, thereby being able to apologise face to face for the inconvenience to those already seated, and also sparing them the sight and unwelcome proximity of a stranger's rear end.

Although it is hardly a book on manners or etiquette, Seven Pillars of Wisdom sees T.E. Lawrence recount an incident in which several men from another tribe ride into Lawrence's camp. They had got lost in a sandstorm and were nearly dead from thirst and hunger. The Arab chief gave them water and food but made them sit far away from his own men while they had their evening meal.

When Lawrence criticised the chief for his lack of desert etiquette, the chief replied that the newcomers' recent privations would make it certain they would be unable to show restraint when eating and drinking. He would not add to their suffering by seating them with his own men, thereby forcing them to behave with decorum totally inappropriate to their current condition and needs. Lawrence learned a great deal from this example of exquisite good manners. So did I.

I have read my collection of books on manners and etiquette, I think, with more delight than profit; for example, I am certain I know exactly the correct way to eat asparagus, but I am now unlikely to go to dinner anywhere it might be served. The publisher's blurb for the 2008 edition of Debrett's A-Z of Modern Manners claims that "Debrett's (is) Britain's leading expert on manners and etiquette".

This is undoubtedly true; nevertheless, Debrett's is not infallible on either manners or etiquette. It is dismissive of the "doggy bag", for example, and writes that to ask for one "is likely to be viewed as a vulgar request". I would argue that that is just too bad; wasting food is far worse.

The book devotes more than 100 words to asparagus and fewer than 30 to the considerably more important issue of public toilets. Here, too, the advice given seems to me misguided. It reads: "Always leave an empty urinal between you and the next man; if this is not possible, use the cubicle." However, good manners seems to me to suggest that the cubicle should always be left free for the convenience of anyone who needs to sit down.

To occupy a cubicle unnecessarily, for the sake of what amounts to coyness, is bad mannered. Debrett's entirely ignores another vexatious issue concerning manners and public toilets: right of way. At busy railway stations where there is usually a turnstile mechanism which permits only one person at a time to enter or leave the toilets, right of way should always be given to the person entering.

The reason is obvious enough, but it is remarkable how often those who have just used the facilities assume when they are leaving it that they should take precedence over those attempting to enter, whose need might be urgent.

The majority of people with bad manners are driven by vanity and selfishness; they have limited imaginations and virtually no capacity for empathising with other people. However, bad manners can also be a kind of performance.

When the comedian Peter Cook was telephoned at his home and invited to Buckingham Palace, he asked for a moment to check his diary and then replied, "I'm so sorry! I see that on that night I shall be watching television." This, I would argue, was not bad manners - this was a performance.

The legendary Norman Balon, landlord of The Coach & Horses pub in London's Soho throughout the 1980s, was so rude and ill-mannered that he transcended the dictates of propriety and was, quite clearly, brilliantly acting out the role of "bad mannered and ignorant landlord", which his customers actively encouraged. Of course, ostentatiously displayed good manners can also be a performance, but a person with these will often speak or act delicately and unobtrusively.

I enjoy thinking about manners because, for me, the issues are refreshingly straightforward, unlike, say, those that underpin literary criticism. Here in England, I believe it is bad manners to spit in public; it means people might carry another person's saliva on their shoes and into their offices and homes.

Also, it is bad manners to put your bag on the seat next to you when travelling by public transport, thereby forcing a stranger either to stand or to have to ask you to move it. If you object to sharing a seat, then travel everywhere by taxi (although if you do this in London you will soon find you cannot afford a bag). It is also bad manners to bellow inanities into your mobile phone while using public transport, as is teaching a child how to walk down steps during rush hour at a busy railway station.

Parents of babies who allow the child to occupy an entire seat - forcing adults to stand when the child could comfortably sit on the parent's lap - have bad manners; there is little chance the child will not also grow up with bad manners. All children, of any age, should be encouraged by their parents to offer their seats to an adult.

The essence of good manners is consideration for other people, a concern for the comfort and convenience of others. This, though, implies a diminution of the importance of self. This is the principal reason good manners are important; not only do we all benefit from other people's good manners, our lives are enhanced by the necessary reduction in self-importance that our consideration for other people inevitably entails. To observe bad manners in someone is, unfailingly, to see the very essence of them. The same is true of good manners.

Vanity and self-regard lie at the heart of bad manners. And they are legion: people who are under the mistaken assumption that they can walk and text at the same time, for example, and thereby move so slowly they hold up several hundred people at Waterloo station; the bickering couple who cannot restrain themselves from arguing in public, thereby creating anxiety in everyone who is forced to listen to them; the doting parents who are under the misapprehension that everybody is as interested in their child's potty-training as they are; the insensitive couple who ostentatiously parade their love for each other in front of the lonely; the person who surrenders to rage and violence without considering the impact such a self-indulgent outburst might have on others; successful and wealthy people who bark out their achievements to someone whose life is not measurable by such criteria ...

All these people, and many many more like them, are connected by their vanity and their selfishness as well as their consequent inability to understand that other people deserve consideration and respect. What good manners announce, conversely, is "It's not all about me".

Readers' comments (1)

  • Kevin McCarron's lucid distinction between etiquette and manners is both instructive and inspirational. It really got me thinking about the selflessness of manners!

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