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‘I am a most superior person’

29 October 2005

12:00 AM

29 October 2005

12:00 AM

Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life Lynne Truss

Profile, pp.228, 9.99

Blaikie’s Guide to Modern Manners Thomas Blaikie

Fourth Estate, pp.144, 10

There’s an old definition of a gentleman: that he is someone who is never rude unintentionally. Rudeness, since then, has spread and spread, and 20 times a day we probably ask ourselves the same question which underlies these two books about contemporary manners. Do they mean to do it? Are they just bleeding ignorant, or does their rudeness reflect some kind of ethical conviction?

One example. At my local branch of Sainsbury’s, you approach the check-out, and the operator says nothing, and does not meet your eye. If you say ‘Hello’, there is usually no response. He or she passes the goods over the scanner, ignoring you. At the end, the total comes up on the display. They say nothing; if you say ‘How much is that?’ they are quite likely to indicate the display with a finger, as if you are a halfwit. You hand over the money, saying ‘Thank you very much’, like crazy; they hand back the change, in silence. The only thing they are at all likely to say to you is what they have been instructed by the company to say, which is ‘Java Nectar card?’ The thing which you are quite likely to say, on the other hand, is ‘It wouldn’t kill you to say please and thank you once in a while.’ Which of course is a startlingly rude thing to say to anyone.

Erving Goffman, the best and most amusing of all students of manners, says in Relations in Public, ‘When persons engage in regulated dealings with each other, they come to employ social routines or practices, namely, patterned adaptations to the rules — including conformances, by-passings, secret deviations, excusable infractions, flagrant violations, and the like.’ For Goffman, all of this behaviour, from a lady’s choice of ‘afternoon ensembles’ (Behaviour in Public Places) to a mental patient choosing to piss on a radiator rather than go to the lavatory (Making Out in a Mental Hospital) is controlled by intention, and any judgment customarily passed on behaviour is at least as worthy of our attention as the ‘flagrant violations, and the like’.

Following Goffman, we might like to wonder whether my Sainsbury’s employee is, like our defined gentleman, actually being rude just as deliberately as I am in reprimanding him. I don’t think it is always a matter of plain bleeding ignorance any more. Rather, it may well be that the cult of self-esteem has progressed so far that people who have to work in menial service industries signal their personal value by, in Goffman’s terms, a refusal to conform to the ‘situational proprieties’. They know they should say thank you; they know you think they should say thank you; they’re damned if they’re going to. The rude check-out girl and the rock star who snorts cocaine at a reception at 10 Downing Street and boasts about it afterwards are doing exactly the same thing.

Lynne Truss has a nice story which illustrates this tendency exactly. A reader of hers, trying to buy a book in Waterstone’s, met with no help at all and some fairly direct rudeness. When he complained, the girl on the till said, ‘Just because you’ve spent £30 doesn’t mean you’ve bought my soul.’ The varieties of rudeness which Miss Truss catalogues are in general exercises in power. They may be faintly pathetic attempts to demonstrate that the individual values himself too much to submit to the situational proprieties. The lady in Waterstone’s is really one of Goffman’s madmen pissing on radiators. Or they may be vast corporations who, genuinely having power over us, will demonstrate it at every turn with unreasonable and wilful demands of their own customers. Miss Truss, like Goffman, whom she refers to, assumes that rudeness is generally meant and meaningful.

She separates out the worst examples of contemporary rudeness into six varieties. They include such immediately recognisable phenomena as ‘Was that so hard to say?’ (my Sainsbury’s experience). There is ‘Why am I the one doing this?’ — the way that corporations have exploited the appearance of choice to treat us, in reality, in Miss Truss’s entirely accurate phrase, ‘not as customers, but as system trainees who haven’t quite got the hang of it yet.’ And, of course, ‘Someone else will clean it up.’

One of her sections is called ‘The Universal Eff-Off Reflex’. Here, one’s doubts about the existence, any longer, of knowing no better as a part of rudeness crystallise. It is fair to assume that nobody at all tells a stranger to fuck off without the deliberate intention to be rude. What Truss is concerned with, really, is what she sees as insufficient cause — the joke about the passenger asking a New York taxi driver, ‘Excuse me, can you tell me the way to Carnegie Hall or shall I just go and fuck myself?’

The increasingly routine use of the fuck-off instruction is, in Truss’s view, going to emasculate its force eventually. In my view, what ‘fuck off’ really means, when addressed to a stranger, is very much what almost all her examples of rudeness really mean: I am a very important person who cannot defer to you. When such absurd performances of self-esteem become universal, they also become meaningless. The trouble is that any kind of response, including ‘Please don’t say “fuck off,” it’s really not very polite,’ like all manners-related reprimands, inevitably mean exactly the same: I am not going to defer to you. Universal and ineffective performances of self-esteem. The fact that you are right is not, I think, going to improve the experience of everyday life very much.

Thomas Blaikie, on the other hand, is much more forbearing and, I think, optimistic. His territory covers thoughtlessness, and he is much more willing to think that people who, for instance, answer their mobile phones in company just haven’t thought about it, and could be persuaded out of it by sweet reason. His book isn’t quite like an old-fashioned guide to etiquette — he is very relaxed about right and wrong answers, and always pleasantly willing to entertain a range of acceptable behaviour. ‘Don’t be stuffy’ is his regular instruction. He is dealing really with those areas of modern life where uncertainties have arisen.

Guiding us through this are three characters, all basically nice people: an old lady, mindful of how things used to be done but realistic and unregretful about their stuffiness; a businessman, principally concerned to get things done to his satisfaction and not too bothered about use of the mobile phone; and a young girl who frankly Knows No Better.

Thomas Blaikie is a keen observer of conventions; I hadn’t noticed that now ‘there is an unspoken expectation that a landline call will last a minimum of two minutes,’ being a keen 20-second man myself. From that skill in observation comes a series of surely very practical principles. In the case of mobile phones, ‘it can wait,’ and if it can’t, then make an excuse in advance. Nicest advice of all, and easily carried out, is that at the end of a chance encounter with an acquaintance in the street, ‘It is best if you can remain as bumbling and ill at ease as possible. Ideally, there should be several attempts to part, with conversation spluttering to life again in between.’ An etiquette book which actively recommends awkwardness: that I can live by.

I can’t help feeling that Blaikie is sometimes taking the opportunity to engineer social change: ‘Men: if you feel that you must wear a tie, this is the cue not to. We’ve got to get away from this pomposity.’ Some of his suggestions are distinctly pioneering, or perhaps buccaneering; I am terrified by his suggestion that ‘a list of no-showers [at a party] conspicuously displayed will act as a warning to o
thers — rather like those admonitory dead crows farmers hang round the edges of fields.’ I feel that guests, even ones absent without permission, are not really Amalekites to be fought against until they are utterly consumed and destroyed, but we may have to differ on this one.

Nevertheless, this is an amusing, practical and sunny book which will do very well for that section of society, I hope still a broad one, which is concerned about manners but not quite sure, particularly nowadays, how to behave. Blaikie is generally broadminded — there is quite a useful passage about what to do if your guests or hosts suddenly start proffering illegal substances. I think he believes deep down that human nature is improvable, and we may take his word for it, as, since he is an English teacher in a girls’ school, he must have seen the very worst of it.

LynneTruss, on the other hand, offers us a faintly apocalyptic scenario where manners, concern, the imaginative sympathy which underlies any kind of good manners are all on the decline. All that will be left is increasingly vociferous public performances of the more gruesome pages of Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and the consolation that, at any rate, these days everybody’s self-esteem is unassailable. I wish I could doubt it. The one thing that we might take consolation from is the reflection that as society grows more and more violent, actively violent, the more, not less significant manners and etiquette becomes. As Truss says, if you want to see exquisitely calibrated manners and proffered respect, don’t read Edith Wharton, visit San Quentin jail.

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