Minding Your Manners

Manners maketh man - that's what we say here in Britain. Or at least that's what we used to say. Bowler hats, clipped vowels, uptight and sometimes ridiculous, maybe. But at least we had good manners. 'Excuse me', we would say. 'I am terribly sorry (we were always terribly sorry), but can I help at all?'

Nowadays we are more likely to say something like: 'Hey you, what are you looking at?' At the nicer kind of British school there is still an attempt to teach good manners. Brighton College, on our genteel south coast, has just introduced a course on etiquette to teach pupils when it is appropriate to take off one's jacket, how to use the right cutlery and how to break bread.

Did you know, for instance, that it is correct to talk to the person on your left during the first course and on your right during the main course of a dinner party? Honest. I am not making this up. It's a minefield for the uninitiated. Did you know that one must never hold the fork at right angles to the plate, or put an elbow on the table while speaking? And as for the napkin - unfold, but only by half, and place on lap with fold towards you.

It's the only way to behave, so I am told by the London Times. I quote the paper because the truth is I haven't got a clue about all of this. Neither have most other people in the country. Sadly, manners are yesterday's story. Offer a seat in a crowded train to a lady and you will receive a hard stare and a shake of the head. No longer are chairs pulled out, doors opened or help offered with a coat. It's not good manners, it's sexism.

Show courtesy to another driver on the road if you wish, but don't expect a wave or a smile. These days we specialize in putting up our feet on the seat of a train, spreading litter or dropping chewing gum. The terrible truth is a lot of Americans I meet are rather better mannered than my countrymen. We used to snigger at your habit of telling complete strangers to have a nice day. But maybe we were wrong to laugh; at least it's a polite greeting. I don't know. Put in our place by a bunch of colonials. It's shaming.

By Peter Allen