MANNERS maketh man, goes the old saying, highlighting the important role etiquette has always played in society. Things change over the years, of course – when was the last time you saw a man putting down his coat over a puddle for a woman? – but what we say and how we behave in public still matters.
You sometimes hear older people complain that manners aren’t what they used to be, particularly now that technology rules so many areas of our lives. And clearly etiquette in some areas of life isn’t as formal or strict as it used to be.
But situations like buying rounds, splitting the bill after a meal, smartphone etiquette, deciding whether or not to offer someone your seat on the bus and navigating the world of online dating can be a minefield. And it all becomes even more complex when you consider changing social norms across gender, race and sexuality, not to mention the of growth of social media and identity politics.
“The fundamentals of manners and etiquette have stayed the same for hundreds of years,” says etiquette coach William Hanson, author of The Bluffers Guide to Etiquette. “It’s all about considering other people and avoiding being selfish. Good manners will always be ageless, timeless, classless and priceless.”
Meanwhile, columnist and social media expert Shona Craven believes technology can be unfairly blamed for a perceived decline in manners.
“I agree that four people round a table looking at their smartphones looks pretty anti-social,” she says. “But we forget that technology can enhance social situations too. After all, phones are connected to people.”
With all this in mind, over the next two weeks we’ll be asking William and Shona to share their advice on how to cope with a range of common modern etiquette dilemmas.
Is it acceptable to get your smartphone out during a meal or when you’re having a drink with someone in the pub?
William says: No matter how important smartphones are in our lives, there is a time and a place for them. If you’ve arranged to be out socially with friends or family the least they can expect is that you spend the time talking to them and not scrolling through social media or doing emails. We all have busy lives but if your life is so busy you need to be looking at your smartphone every two minutes, cancel or rearrange.
Lots of what we do on our phones isn’t as important as we think it is. Does answering a message right now really matter that much? If you must look at your phone, then at least make your excuses and go to the toilet.
Shona says: The idea of “put your phones away” is too prescriptive. You’re supposed to be having fun, it’s not the school classroom. For some people having their phone on the table is a comfort blanket. Also, many of us use them as a watch. Whether it’s rude to look at your phone while you’re with someone depends on the interaction. If you’re looking up the name of something as part of a conversation, then arguably you’re adding to the one-to-one interaction rather than detracting from it.
But if you go to look at the time, spot a message from someone else and turn your attention to that, it becomes rude. It can be hard to resist answering messages, but people need to be disciplined.
Public transport etiquette. Should you always thank the bus driver? Do you have to queue for the bus? When should you give up your seat?
William says: If you have contact with the driver and walk past him or her, you should acknowledge them and say hello or thank you. It’s rude to do otherwise.
You should offer a seat to anyone who looks like they need it more than you – usually the elderly of either gender, ladies who are pregnant, or someone that has sprinted to catch the bus (even someone young) and looks like they could do with a seat. I live in London and I rarely get a seat but when I do I’m always looking out for someone who needs it more.
People tend to be more reticent about offering their seat these days in case they offend anyone. Regardless of whether you are male or female, young or old, if you are offered a seat and don’t want it, then don’t snap or be cross, just say “thank you, I’m fine”. We must remember that chivalry is a two-way street.
Shona says: Not queuing for the bus queue risks tuts, murmurs and even elbows. But in a busy city, how do you know who is getting on the same bus as you and whether they will flag yours down? It’s a minefield. Most of the time the bus won’t be full and everyone will get on, so there’s no need to queue. And all the “you go, no you go” only holds things up. Knowing who to offer a seat to is tricky. Is that woman pregnant or just overweight? Older people don’t always want to be treated as frail, while younger people could have an unseen disability. People shouldn’t have to ask for a seat and I’d like to see a system introduced – maybe with a lanyard? – that indicates to fellow passengers you would like a seat.
William says: Only tip of you are 100 per cent happy with the service. Adding on a service charge should be voluntary: if you get good service, you tip. Indeed, this encourages good service. Even if a charge is automatically added and you get poor service, few British people ever speak up. If the service is bad you are perfectly within your rights to ask people to remove it from the bill.
With reference to splitting the bill, in a group it’s best if everyone has the same number of courses, otherwise it’s not fair to divide the bill by the number of people. Nothing ruins a meal more than the “mine was £1.50 cheaper” conversation. If you are that person, don’t go out for a meal. If money is that tight, stay in and save up.
As for rounds, it should be like for like. If there are four people, then everyone buys four drinks. The problem these days is that the younger generation don’t drink as much as older people. Some people won’t want four drinks. Rounds seem a bit old fashioned. It’s more acceptable to order for just yourself and your significant other, or put money into a kitty. It can appear a bit anti-social to say “I’ll buy my own”, so make sure you say it nicely.
Shona says: I almost always tip – service would have to be very bad not to. But it depends where you are in the world. Overseas many people in the service industry rely on tips for their wages. Do some research and ask locals about the culture and etiquette of wherever you are.
Splitting restaurant bills needs some thought. There are all sorts of social conventions that don’t take into consideration the individual circumstances of your friends, who may have very different levels of income. In a group setting it’s important to point out when someone wasn’t drinking or had fewer courses. We all have a responsibility not to freeload. It’s bad etiquette to say “I didn’t have a starter”, but good etiquette to point out that someone else hasn’t.
Should I hold a door open for a woman?
William says: Hold doors open for anyone, regardless of gender. If you’re a woman and someone holds a door open for you, it’s not because you’re a woman, it’s because you’re a human. It’s about politeness – don’t berate the person.
Shona says: Holding the door for someone shows consideration and kindness. Of course I’d hold a door for a guy – everyone should hold them for everyone else.
It can be awkward when you’re walking through a corridor with fire doors and someone holds it for you, but you’re little bit far away and have to run, then say thanks, then do it all over again. Should we start a conversation? Are we friends now? Don’t oblige someone to run down half a corridor just to make yourself look good.
Should you tag someone in a Facebook picture when they don’t look good? Is it OK to be Facebook friends with your boss?
William says: There’s a function on Facebook called Tag Review – turn it on and it won’t tag you until you accept. If you’re in any doubt, even if you think a picture is really funny, ask people before you tag them. Consideration for others is always going to be in fashion, whatever the technology. Don’t just put something up because you think it’ll get you lots of likes.
Facebook is so passe these days anyway – the young, cool, happening people aren’t using it. Parents and grandparents are using it in increasing numbers, but in my experience the older generations use it like teenage girls used to use it 10 years ago – they over-share pictures of their grandchildren and pets and give you unnecessary running commentaries that can be very cringey.
Shona says: Being friends on Facebook becomes a bit awkward when it’s a colleague and there’s an imbalance of seniority. But don’t forget that people use Facebook more sparingly and for different reasons and audiences, and friend requests are easily ignored these days anyway. But if someone ignores your request, don’t mention it. And don’t take it personally. It’s up to them to decide how they use social media and who they want to share that with.
Tagging is a minefield. After a night out, if you don’t tag someone, are you telling them they looked really bad? I tag everyone and they can un-tag themselves if they wish.
Is it Ok to call people “love”, “hen” and “doll”, and is it OK to touch people to show affection and/or sympathy?
William says: In a professional environment using such terms is not appropriate – just use someone’s name or title. With friends, if they don’t mind you calling them “darling”, or “love”, that’s fine. You’ll soon see whether they are comfortable with it.
As far as touching goes, in professional environment I’d avoid it completely, especially in this day and age. In a social environment, always make sure touching is from the waist up – never below the waist – on the arm or elbow, or below the shoulder, and only for a second or two.
Shona says: Terms like “hen” seem to have died out a bit and often you’ll only hear it used in an ironic way these days. Does this make us a less friendly society? I think there are probably better ways to show humanity than names that might offend people. Some older women especially still use “hen”, and surely no one is going to take offence at someone saying “can you tell me the way to Buchanan Street bus station, hen?” or something like that. But it depends on the context. A man using “hen” can sound patronising.
As a society we are becoming much more aware of the fact that some people are very uncomfortable with being touched. It very much depends on the social cues. There’s also a perception that digital technology is making it harder for us to pick up on social cues. But I think women in friendships are much more touchy-feely these days. Sometimes it can be awkward when you’ve met someone as a friend a couple of times and you’re saying goodbye – should we hug? It depends. It should be a nice thing. If in doubt, just ask.
William says: I have done online dating in the past but after meeting my partner (not on the internet) I’m glad I no longer have to. I think the stigma is mostly gone, except maybe in the generations that never had it.
I think there are a few golden rules. Present yourself truthfully in pictures. Don’t have photographs with sunglasses covering your eyes, always use recent photographs and if you’re larger, be honest about it – don’t only use head shots. Be fair. If you’re a lady and you now have short cropped hair, don’t use pics where you have long flowing locks.
If you turn up for a date and think “absolutely no way”, give the person a shot. Nothing makes you feel worse than when someone cuts a date obviously short. I actually made some good friends through online dating.
Online dating by its very nature is daunting and there’s always going to be a worry over whether someone is hiding something. Managing expectations is also important. If a date goes well and you’re going to be on a plane and unable to contact them tomorrow, tell them that.
Shona says: I think the most important thing is to try to treat others as you would wish to be treated. The problem comes when people have different expectations. The key thing is to try not to take things to heart. Don’t behave recklessly towards someone you don’t know because you’ve had bad experiences in the past. It’s easy for women in particular to get very cynical about things. I’ve heard friends say “all the men on this site are horrible” – that’s not fair. You can’t generalise. Online dating opens up a world of possibilities and although you have three bad experiences in a row, the next person could be a breath of fresh air. People get negative and frustrated. Take a break rather than becoming too bitter and behaving badly to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
The Tinder generation can be very clinical – it can feel like an exchange of CVs and removes a certain amount of the magic, seeming cold and functional.
Swiping left and right is very superficial, obviously, but if you go on a date with someone that’s different. If you don’t want to see them again then you have the potential to hurt their feelings. Lead by example and don’t stoop to the level of the worst treatment you’ve had.
It only takes a few minutes to compose a nice text to let someone down gently rather than just ghosting them [pretending they don’t exist]. At least they will know how they stand and maybe have a little more optimism about moving on to the next date.
But if you don’t hear from someone, try not to take it to heart and don’t over-analyse the reasons. Remember the old adage: maybe he’s just not that into you.
William Hanson’s new podcast Help! I Sexted My Boss, presented with Radio 1’s Jordan North, launches on 04 September.