Excuse me. How are you? You look nice. Yes please, I’d love to. Thank you, that was wonderful. Gosh, just typing those phrases makes me come over all calm, civilised and warm. So I’ll make the most of this moment, because it’s probably the only time today – if not this week, month or year – when I’m going to get the opportunity to consider how even the idea of such polite social interactions me feel.
Walking around Bath – yes, the supposedly gracious epicentre of all things manners-related – last Saturday, it dawned on me that we’ve turned into a nation of free-range pigs. Having been crashed into several times by hoards of marauding teenagers, almost run down by several pot-bellied blokes (their stained, slogan-scrawled t-shirts reeking of BO) and a gaggle of yummy mummies who cared not whose ankles the ugly buggies containing their ugly bug kids smashed to smithereens as long as they made it to Baby Gap before the next feed, I took refuge in the nearest café. “Youalrightthere?”, drooled the skinny Neanderthal behind the counter, his jeans tugged so far down his scrawny buttocks that a tattoo bearing the legend ‘up for it!’ was revealed. Behind me, an obnoxious chav belched a lungful of smoke into my hair. The guy in the queue next to me shoved his fist down the front of his track suit bottoms and grated his knuckles across his groin. I left just as the Neanderthal’s co-worker started frothing milk with one hand while picking her nose with the other, exiting via a door that the person who barged in front of me allowed to slam in my face.
I wish I could say that things are better at home, but they’re not. I’ve lived under the same roof as men who regard burping, belching and farting as acceptable means of communication and think its fine to pee in the sink. An overnight guest once alerted me to the presence of a skid mark he’d painted on the toilet bowl with the words, “I’ve left a little reminder of my visit in the loo”. I once had a party, complete with massive buffet and free-flowing cocktails, after which not a single thank you was received. As for plate licking, dragging fingers through gravy, leaving dirty underwear scattered around public spaces and using coffee cups as ashtrays: it’s all going on. The notion of good manners – like decent conversation and a humane regard for the wellbeing of others – seems to have slipped from the collective consciousness altogether; I’m seriously considering taking myself off to a baboon sanctuary in search of some elegant, sophisticated company.
Fortunately, there are still ‘ordinary’ folk who swim against the great unwashed tide. I recently enjoyed dinner with a male friend who not only offered to take my coat and pulled my chair out for me as we sat down, but asked if I was enjoying my food, put his knife and fork down between bites rather than bolting every morsel, sipped his wine instead of swigging it and apologised – yes, apologised! – for the soft clatter his fork made when he accidently allowed it to slip from his grip. But he is, sadly, the rare exception that proves the rule that such behaviour has become as antiquated as turning your mobile phone off when in company.
Social psychologist John F Davidio says that manners are a class-related concept. Feminist hardliners believe that a woman who allows a door to be held open for her is accepting condescension. In reality, such arrogant, supercilious theories do little more than perpetuate archaic notions of class and gender divides – as do bad manners themselves. As novelist, poet and travel writer Maurice Baring said, “Whoever and wherever one is, one is always at a disadvantage if one is rude”. I bet he never peed in the sink.