It was new year, 2008. I felt it was time to “solve the problems of the world before it’s too late.” I know, a lofty ambition. But I’d worked out that we held the key to making the world a better place and that waiting around for politicians to sort it out for us was going to be a long one. I was pretty concerned about the environment in those days (still am, but I’m rather more fatalistic about the planet now – it’s clearly too late to save it), and none of what I went on to propose was going to mend the sky or wash the oceans or slow down the melting of the ice caps. It was simply a desire to adopt Derek Batey’s famous sign-off from Mr & Mrs:
Be nice to each other.
What followed was The Manners Manifesto. I felt then, and I still feel now, that it is within our gift as individuals to make the world a better place, especially the world immediately around us, by returning to – or a formalising the continuation of – good manners. I republish the Manners Manifesto here as more people subscribe to and read my blog, and I have more “followers”, thanks to Twitter, and I feel it may strike a few chords with the decent folk who “follow” me. Also, I wanted to give it a spring clean and update it to include manners on the internet, a burning issue.
Here’s how we do it:
- Smile. Not all the time. Not at everybody. They’ll lock you up. But smile at the person who sells you your ticket at the station. Smile at the person behind the counter at the newsagent, and be glad we still even have ticket sellers and newsagents. Try this: look at yourself reflected in the train window, or the shopfront: your default face is one of tight-lipped, frown-headed anxiety. And with good reason. Now reconfigure it. Don’t show your teeth, this is England (or at least, it is where I’m standing) – but allow your lips to soften into a grin.
- Say please and thank you. I’d like a medium soya latte, please. I’d like one Lucky Dip for Friday’s Euromillions, please. Even if you insist, for whatever American reason, on using the phrase, “Can I get?”, suffix it with the p-word. It feels good coming out of your mouth. Combined with a smile (see: 1), it actually takes the edge off the sheer ritualistic, mechanical joylessness of an everyday transaction.
- Let that car in. Driving is a blinkin’ nightmare, especially in the cities, and even more especially in London. I’ve almost reached the point where I not longer use the car at all, and am contemplating a car-free future. Hooray. But in the meantime: you’re in the car, and you want to get home, or to the shops. Of course you do. It’s only natural. But so does that person ahead of you, indicating that he/she wants to cross the lane that you’re in, to make a right turn. Why not flash them through? It’s one of those maddening high streets that starts at the traffic lights with two lanes then almost immediately bottlenecks into one because of a bus lane, or a parked lorry. Come on: one at a time. You can keep edging forward to keep them out, but they’ve got to come in at some point. Why not now? And if someone lets you in, give them a friendly wave in the rear-view mirror. If someone cuts you up, or crosses in front without indicating, or jumps a light at a box junction and blocks your path, for a change, why not pull back from mouthing the word “c***” or “twat” at them, which won’t alleviate this temporary snarl-up; it will just make the atmosphere worse. Roll your eyes at them, or do an exaggerated tut, as if to say, “Cuh! The traffic, eh? We’re all in this together, and the sooner we get home, or to the shops, the better!” (To avoid being called a “c***” or a “twat” yourself, don’t drive into box junctions on amber, and use your indicators.) As I was told when I was learning to drive in 1982, driving is easy, it’s all the other drivers that make it difficult. You are one of the other drivers.
- Be friendly to strangers. We were brought up to be terrified of strangers, but we’re all strangers until someone introduces us, and only a very tiny percentage of the people you pass in the street will be paedophiles or murderers or knife kids. Most will be just like you, except with a different coat on, or a different bone structure, or with a few more miles on the clock. So if someone asks you directions, don’t run away, or pretend that you’re in a hurry, try to help them. Make them feel less like a stranger. Sometimes, the stranger will be shy, and would rather stand around looking lost than risk the humiliation of asking someone directions. If you see this, intervene.
- Help old people off or on the bus or train. There’s an etiquette here, so let’s use our discretion. Not all old people consider themselves old, and might look frail and in need of a seat, or a leg-up, but if you barge in there, they get embarrassed. It’s a minefield, but better to be the first person on a bus or in a carriage to offer your seat to someone with grey hair than to sit there, not knowing, willing someone else to do it first. I have found that helping people off or on the bus or train gives you a lift (ironic!) for the rest of the day. And not just the elderly – people with pushchairs, or loads of bags, or the infirm. (Helping blind people without guide dogs is another tricky one, but again, try and judge the situation on its own merits. Blind people are not usually afraid to ask for help, in which case, give it, and don’t run away, thinking, ha ha, they can’t see me. I think we all know not to pat or fuss guide dogs, don’t we? They are irresistible and the most noble of all dogs, but we must resist the urge, as it puts them off their job.)
- Say “No, thanks” to Big Issue sellers. I rarely buy the Big Issue. But I smile and say, “No thanks” to Big Issue sellers, which, in terms of manners, is better than looking at the floor, or regarding them with contempt for slowing down your walk to the bus stop with their untidy appearance. Let’s be honest, they’d rather you bought a Big Issue. But if you prefer not to, look them in the eye, smile, and say, “No thanks.” Your relationship with the homeless is a delicate one, especially in a recession where you might be the one in debt, and worrying about that, while the person without a home has a different set of worries. (You could have to sell your home at a loss; he or she doesn’t have one to sell.) I was once approached on the beach at Bournemouth by a beggar who claimed he had lost the return half of his train ticket in the sand. He was obviously a liar. I still gave him some. There are no hard and fast rules. I am more likely to give money to a homeless person who has a dog, but that’s just me.
- Be polite to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yes, I do object to people knocking on my door after dark, as I always think of the old lady I used to live next door to in Streatham, who would have been terrified of a knock after dark, even if it was from an accredited British Gas salesman hawking for her electricity business. I think it’s OK to pretend you’re not at home if the doorbell goes after dark. You’re doing it on behalf of the old people. But if you do answer the door and it’s a young lad with a case full of inferior cleaning products, or two smartly dressed men asking if you ever think about Jesus Christ (or at least getting to that key question after luring you into small talk about non-religious matters), just politely tell them that you are not interested or that you are busy and smile as you close the door. No matter how annoyed you are for being disturbed, at least you can go back to the telly – they have to keep knocking at all the other doors, which must be shit. I am even polite to canvassing politicians.
- Never swear at people on the other end of helplines. They are just doing their job. If they cannot help you, ask to speak to their supervisor. During my BT problems in the summer of 2007 (by far the worst stretch of customer dissatisfaction I have ever experienced – but then again, I am not a Santander or LA Fitness customer), I reached the point of no return and calmly informed the Scottish gentleman on the other end of the line that I was about to swear, but not at him, only through frustration, and that he should not take it personally. Then I swore. (“This is fucking ridiculous,” were my words.) I’m not proud, but I think this preface helped. Keep them in the loop. Stay calm, and if possible, stay PG certificate. There’s enough tension in the world of customer service without blaming it on someone with a job on the other end of a phone. It’s not his/her fault, it’s the system’s, or the management’s.
- Never, ever drop litter. This may seem to be outside the remit of manners, but it’s not. It’s about respecting the space we share. It’s an extension of smiling and being nice. I’ve seen grown adults eat the last crisp in a packet and literally let the packet drop from their hand to the pavement below, without even a look back. Putting a coffee cup neatly on the pavement is no better than chucking it, overarm. Put it in a bin. If the nearest bin is full, take it to the next one. That cellophane bit around the cigarette packet? Just because it’s see-through doesn’t mean it isn’t there when you drop it to the floor. I live near a parade of shops with a KFC-copycat chicken outlet on it; pretty much every morning, especially Saturdays and Sundays, I see boxes and bags with this place’s logo on them, dropped in the streets adjoining. Clearly, late nite chicken eaters are beyond the niceties of etiquette, and maybe even drunk. I tut to myself at them, even though they have long gone. Even drunk people should be ashamed of littering. At least vomit can be sluiced down.
- Leaving bags of stuff outside charity shops when they’re closed? Come on! The signs are clear enough. Just because you’re a superhero for giving an old jigsaw and some jumpers to charity it doesn’t mean you can just dump bin bags by night with a clear conscience. Yes, the old ladies who work in there are volunteers, but does that mean they can think of nothing nicer at the start of a working day than sorting through your rain-sodden rubbish before they can even get in the door? On the same ticket, if you’re recycling cans or bottles, don’t just tuck the empty plastic bag down the side of the bin because fuck it, if they want you to save the planet, they can chuck your sticky bag away as well.
- Talk to people at the checkout. You don’t have to say much. God, even something inane like, “Busy in here, today, isn’t it?” or “Not as busy as usual in here, today, is it?” might put us on the road to peace in the Middle East. People everywhere are, by and large, just doing their jobs. When a man or woman in a brightly-coloured kagoule offers you a free newspaper, the very existence of which makes your blood boil, remember that it’s not his or her fault – they’re just trying to earn an honest crust, like you – so smile and say, “No, thanks” (see: 6). It takes a second. You don’t even have to stop walking. Likewise, if someone tries to give you a flyer, or a card, don’t take it as an affront. And if their technique is to hold their arm outstretched in front of you, which is an oppressive, invasive action, why not say, “Excuse me” as you push past?
- Don’t swear when there are kids about. I do, occasionally, if I forget when – say – I’m in a family-friendly eaterie, and it’s not nice. Reel those swear words in.
- Think before you post that nasty comment online. Seriously. Read it back. Then imagine you are the person who’ll be on the receiving end of it. How would you like it? If you’re on Twitter, have you “@”-ed the person you’re about to insult into the Tweet? If so, remove the “@”. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and to like/dislike anyone in the public eye. (If you’re replying to a Tweet, check first that you’re not automatically replying to everyone “@”-ed into the original Tweet. Do they all need to read what you think?) I reserve my hate for elected politicians, dictators and people who are cruel to animals, but even then, I would think very hard before insulting them in a public forum. There are some Tories in the Cabinet I hate with every fibre of my being, but not personally. Save your hate for the system that allows the super-rich to avoid tax and for murderous tyrants to stay in power and for the planet to be polluted industrially because of the power of unregulated industry with deep pockets. (Most of the crimes committed on the internet are basically down to manners. Do not say anything to anyone online that you wouldn’t say to their face. Simple as that. And if you must post anonymously – I don’t really have a choice – do not use that cloak of anonymity to be a more horrible bastard than you are in person.)
- Oh, and don’t talk, eat loudly or text in the cinema. Basic stuff. The cinemas – even my beloved arthouse chain the Curzon – sell crunchy food. It’s their fault, ultimately, but if you must buy crisps or popcorn or sweets in noisy bags, try and time your racket with a racket on the screen. Talking is only permitted at the lowest possible volume, a comment whispered into the ear of an adjacent companion and no conversations. And turn your phone off, you moron. (Sorry to have to call you a bad name, but really?) If your wife is likely to go into labour, or a relative is about to die, stay by his or her side; don’t leave him or her and go into the cinema and leave your phone on. (I’m assuming that’s why people leave their phones on in the cinema? I mean, it has to be something life or death, right?) Key thing to remember: the cinema is not your front room. Other people have paid to come and sit in it. Respect them with your actions.
- Get out of the way. I have always thought that the world is divided into two types of people: those who get out of the way, and those who don’t. As long as we pretty much divide down the middle, this can work. But what if there are less people who get out of the way than those who do not? Anarchy. Why don’t we mix it up a bit? Get out of the way most of the time, but not always. Roll with the situation. I walk across the super-crowded concourse of a major London railway station most days. It’s amazing there aren’t more punch-ups. That’s a lot of people all going in different directions at once, crossing over all the time. It takes your full attention to avoid collisions. Give it. (This covers that most idiotic and perplexing of acts, texting while walking. Any activity that involves you looking down and not ahead while walking is a bad idea. This also includes reading a book. If you must do either, stop and stand to one side. I speak as someone who does occasionally text and walk when I think there’s nobody around, but they could be coming round the next corner, so unless you live in the middle of the country, it’s still a bad idea.)
These are not impossible dreams, are they? The one that have survived from the first draft weren’t in 2008, and they aren’t in 2012. It’s all about a state of mind. It’s remembering that you share the planet, which is a lot easier if you first remember that you share Waitrose and the high street and the train carriage and the motorway.
There’s nothing in there to argue with, really, is there? It’s common sense. All I’ve done is arrange it into a nice list, with numbers, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.
I’ve already had a couple of excellent sub-clauses suggested via Twitter.
2a. Hold doors open. If someone holds a door open for you, say, “Thank you.” If you have just come through a door and someone else is coming through afterwards, hold it open for them. How hard can any of this be? And if you’ve just come through a door and it was closed before you opened it, close it behind you. This is extra pertinent on trains.
5a. A bag is not a person. If you’re on a bus or train and it is filling up with people, don’t wait for someone to ask you to move the bag you’ve plonked on the seat next to you. Take it off before that happens. There’s nothing worse – as you well know! – than having to ask to make this to happen if you’re standing up and wishing to sit down. And here’s a revelation: putting a newspaper up in front of your face does not make the tiresome other passengers go away. We’re still here.
5b. Don’t do anything on public transport that you normally do at home in the bathroom. I once saw a man actually clipping his toenails on a train once. His toenails (which as we all know are smellier than fingernails). He didn’t have a care in the world. I know it’s a cultural thing and probably a compliment in some countries, but let’s lay off the spitting, too. And even though some men pick their noses (and sometimes dispose of the contents orally – yuck!) without realising they are doing it, let’s start realising we are doing it!
5c. Let the people off first. It’s basic. It makes the world go round. If you wish to board a train, wait until people have fully disembarked before you step foot inside that carriage. And that means: nobody gets on until every single person who wishes to has got off. No crossover. If you were getting off, you’d expect nothing more. Here’s the newsflash: you will be getting off at some point.
11a. Put your phone down when you’re being served. Even if it is beyond your social powers to chat to the person at the checkout or the counter, don’t continue with a conversation you’re already having on your mobile. The same goes for texting. Have a bit of respect, and offer the person you’re expecting to serve you the full span of your attention. If your phone rings, why not take the call and say, “Sorry, I’m in a shop, I’ll call you back”? (Oh, and say “sorry” before you take it.) Equally, if you’re having a coffee with someone, whether it’s a friend or something more formal like a meeting, don’t take a call without first saying, “Sorry, this is really important, I’d better take this.” And then get up and move elsewhere. I realise that if you’re reading this and you’re of an age to have grown up with mobile phones, all of this simple etiquette is going to require some un-learning. But stick with it. We need to dial back from the unpleasant state we’ve got into with our always-on mobile devices. (I take great pleasure in turning mine off, but I realise I’m a maverick in this.) Real people come first, people on the phone come second.
(I’m all for further sub-clauses, by the way.)