Debora Robertson and Kay Plunkett-Hodge set out to write a book on modern manners just before the pandemic — and ended up creating a new guide for the times we now live in. Debora picks up the story and shares 39 tips.
When my friend Kay Plunkett-Hogge and I first decided to write a book about manners for the modern world, we could hardly have imagined how much that world would change between our starting to write and it being published.
Thankfully, we were able to edit and add and generally meddle with the copy almost up to the second it was printed, to include mask etiquette, what to do when you can’t shake hands, how to survive Zoom meetings with your dignity intact and other concerns that now preoccupy us.
However, in essence, when it comes to manners, really not much has changed. Good manners are simply codified kindness and that never goes out of style.
Manners are not about trying to catch people out with elaborate place settings or dress codes. They’re about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment and letting grace and tolerance be your guide, which has never been more appropriate than now.
1. Although it’s important to be polite to friends, colleagues and acquaintances, it’s even more important to be polite to those with whom you live. Home is the training ground for life.
2. If manners are kindness, the politest thing you can ever do is clear up after yourself at home. No excuses.
3. Use your words. Deal with upsets and hurt feelings swiftly and gently. Sulking is terribly vulgar.
4. My mother, a wise woman, always says: ‘Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?’ You don’t always need to win. Pick your battles.
5. Don’t impose a Zoom call if a telephone call will do.
6. Never insist ‘cameras on’ during a work call, especially before 10am.
7. When you’re not an active part of the call, mute, mute, mute.
8. If someone forgets to unmute, leave it to the person leading the call to notify them. It’s tiresome if everyone piles in.
9. If you’re working from home, with a spouse or housemate who is also working from home, don’t hog the best chair/table/circle light/view in perpetuity.
10. If you’re the boss with staff working from home, be understanding if children, pets and delivery people occasionally interrupt meetings. Having a life is not a weakness.
11. We may not be as buttoned up as we were, but looking pulled together still counts. Take the sartorial lead from the most senior person at the meeting or in your company.
12. Being well and appropriately groomed is a kindness to those around you. Dirty nails don’t make you interesting.
13. Respect physical distances. When meeting people, hold your hands loosely behind your back à la The Prince of Wales, so you’re not tempted to dive in for a handshake and others are less likely to impose one on you.
14. Elbow bumping is unnecessary and uncouth.
15. Be patient. Many are going through a lot, even if they don’t always show it.
16. Do continue to wear a face mask when and where required and never make fun of anyone else’s mask-wearing or other Covid-related cautions.
17. With email, don’t copy people into things they don’t have to be copied into. We’re all overloaded enough as it is.
18. Don’t use expressions such as: ‘circling back’, ‘touching base’ or ‘I wanted to float this to the top of your inbox’, unless your intention is to make people’s teeth itch.
19. As we start to go out again, be understanding of and patient with any new restaurant rules.
20. Also, tip well and tip often.
21. Don’t ask the staff: ‘Did you enjoy your nine-month break on furlough?’
22. Now more than ever, it’s so important to honour restaurant reservations. If you have to cancel, do it as far in advance as possible.
23. For everyone’s sake, when you invite people, make it very clear when you expect them to arrive and, most importantly, when you expect them to leave. Never say: ‘Come for the weekend!’ Do say: ‘Why don’t you come in time for drinks at six on Friday and stay for Sunday lunch?’
24. Hard as it may be to believe, not everyone loves or is comfortable with dogs. If yours is a yapper or a jumper-upper, be sensitive to your guests. ‘He’s only being friendly’ won’t cut it.
25. Enjoy your own parties or others won’t. Plan, prepare, do as much as you can ahead, then relax with your guests.
26. Never bleat about culinary failures. No one cares and mostly they don’t notice.
27. Within five minutes of arrival, your guests should have been divested of their coats, have drinks in their hands and have been introduced to anyone they don’t know.
28. Arrive between five and 10 minutes after the specified time.
29. Send cut flowers before or after a party. On the night, there is enough pressure on the host without them having to find a vase, too.
30. If you’re a guest, talk to everyone, not only the people you already know.
31. Never ruin a party by making a big drama about leaving. If you can’t say goodbye to the host without breaking things up, slip away and send a very prompt thank you.
32. Emailed, texted, WhatsApped thank yous are fine, although the greater the kindness, the more you should consider best stationery. Above all, say it quickly. Thanks delayed is often thanks denied.
33. Don’t take offence if others aren’t ready to go out and be sociable quite yet.
34. There is no greater crime against good manners than sneering at someone else’s transgressions against some arcane rule
of etiquette of which they aren’t aware. Never be that person.
At the end
35. This has been such a strange and difficult time — a time slightly out of time — when it has been challenging to keep up with people. Remember, it is never too late to express condolences.
36. In illness and grief, do show up, virtually if it’s not possible in person. Being present is more important than being perfect.
37. If you can’t think of the right words, sending a small, thoughtful gift and a brief note is a good start. It becomes easier once you have opened the door to communication.
38. Never, under any circumstances, say: ‘Everything happens for a reason.’
39. Ditto: ‘I know how you must feel.’
Crucial signs to look out for when identifying a bounder.
We’ll all end up on our deathbeds eventually, but it would be nice to make it there with no regrets.
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