General Essay On The History Of Manners

If you could get a word in edgewise, over the yelling, pointing and the rude interrupting, what the nation really wants to know is...

By Samit Basu With Genesia Alves & Mamta Sharma  

Dinner conversations have been replaced by phone-tapping.

IN THE WORLD we live in now, survival is victory. And we're not talking about surviving wars, or earthquakes, or epidemics, but getting through an average day without whatever hair you have left standing completely on end. How long does it take, on any given day, before you're gritting your teeth and reminding yourself not to lose your cool and unleash your inner Genghis Khan? Under the constant onslaught of other people's everyday intrusions, from spam SMSes to intimate strangers on public transport, are we all turning into grumbling misanthropes? Has the world always been like this, or have things been getting steadily worse? And are the people around us as befuddled by us as we are by them? What, in the name of civilization, has happened to people's manners?

In a world that's constantly changing, shrinking, flattening, and always in a hurry, a world where diverse cultures, regions and generations are being mashed together, and where the omnipresence of technology changes human behaviour regularly, it has become hard to define manners. So when we say 'manners' in this article, we don't mean etiquette, or particular ritualized codes of conduct. We're talking about basic civilized behaviour, civic sense, a general empathy and concern for other people, and following very basic rules to make sure we don't ruin the days of people around us. Guidelines that we hope they, in turn, follow when we're around them as well.

You're in a queue at a supermarket checkout counter when a very respectable-looking lady barges past and dumps her groceries in front of the clerk, blithely ignoring the outraged murmurs of everyone waiting patiently in line.

Similar situations: line-cutting everywhere from airports to ticket queues, people breaking our already loose driving guidelines and cramming their cars into the inch of space you need, or stuffing themselves into reserved seats while confidently pretending they're not doing anything Queen Elizabeth would have frowned at.

YOUR IMMEDIATE RESPONSE: Running amok. The temptation to physically lift a queue-breaker and place him or her firmly at the end of the line, with or without pithy comments about their upbringing, is ever present. But according to Aparna Samuel Balasundaram, a Gurgaon-based psychotherapist and family coach, "People are not doing it purposefully. There is not a conscious intent to be rude. Everyone is constantly on a treadmill of life, running a race, and they want to hasten the process and cut corners. We all want to get ahead before everyone else. But the human heart is not getting any darker."

TRY THIS INSTEAD: "Avoid rudeness or shouting, but do not keep silent either-that would mean you are contributing to such behaviour," counsels Balasundaram. And people who get away with this once will become serial offenders. Use an authoritative 'teacher voice', but remain calm while reminding the offender about the existence of the obviously visible queue. And remember that sometimes line-cutting is a result of emergencies.  

Prof V. Raghunathan, PhD, author of Games Indians Play and the forthcoming book A Comprehensive Guide to Queue Jumping for a Good Indian, suggests our tendency to jump queues, whether at service windows or traffic, may partially be a product of the environment. He says, "When people jostle or try to cut queues at the municipal taps or a ticket counter at the local movie hall, it may be 'understandable' to some extent, as the water may go off or the tickets may all be sold before your turn."

THIS HAPPENS: You're at a movie theatre, hoping to enjoy some expensive but rewarding entertainment, when you find someone in your vicinity having a prolonged, loud phone conversation, or kicking your seat incessantly.

Or perhaps your neighbour plays music, whether devotional or heavy metal, incessantly at ear-splitting volumes, at times when only bats should be awake.

YOUR IMMEDIATE RESPONSE: A natural, however, immature, reaction would be the eye-for-an-eye method: to talk even louder, or really test the limits of your own sound system, to demonstrate exactly how annoying this feels. According to Chennai-based psychiatrist and author, Dr Vijay Nagaswami, belligerence affects people differently: "Many people end up being blasé. Some equally rude, loud and brash people tend to return the compliment in kind and not think too much about it. But those who find such behaviour obnoxious, threatening or cringeworthy, end up feeling the most stressed."

TRY THIS INSTEAD: Balasundaram stresses that one needs to respond to these situations practically and smartly. If the ruckus-makers in a movie theatre, for instance, are a bunch of rowdy boys, it's best to just try to ignore them because "Whatever you say is going to fuel the issue. Creating a ruckus is at times part of their purpose other than enjoying the movie." In these situations, talking to the management is better than confrontation. "If it is a smaller group (2-3 people) or a couple chatting away, just say 'I would like to enjoy the movie and you are disturbing me.' They may make one more comment but then they get the message and keep quiet," she adds.

You're at a wedding, or a social function, and a distant relative (or, in India, a complete stranger) begins a Guantanamo-style interrogation, asking deeply personal questions about your career, income, relationship and reproductive status.Possible additions to this lethal cocktail: physical overfamiliarity, a complete non-acknowledgement of personal space. Alternatively, an unasked-for front-row seat to a loud private argument in a public space.

YOUR IMMEDIATE RESPONSE: This is a problem most of us Indians have faced through our lives, and when we asked our own friends and relatives intrusive questions about how they deal with these situations, they gave us a range of responses they've tried, from outright rage and angry stomps to intentional Shock-and-Awe tactics such as pretending to be gay or pregnant, or to have already got married. None of these, alas, are methods that trained professionals would recommend.

TRY THIS INSTEAD: According to Balasundaram, dealing with intrusive personal questions and overfamiliarity is a fine art, and responses should be calibrated in accordance with the closeness (relationship-wise, not physical) of the interrogator, and the perceived genuineness of their intentions. We should be as honest as possible with people who are asking personal questions out of genuine concern, who we know wish us well. You may completely avoid (politely, of course) answering people who are just looking for gossip or trying to be hurtful. "If they ask 'Why don't you have kids?' say, 'It is a personal choice and we are waiting' (even if it hasn't worked out in spite of trying). Leave it there and very quickly follow it up with a question about them. Distract them and turn the tables to bring them in the limelight. Never lose control of your emotions. Be stoic and in control while dealing with the situation."

Wise words, no doubt, but it is often difficult to be so mature when dealing with particularly annoying offenders. And when it comes to personal space and physical overfamiliarity, of course, a whole new universe of discomfort opens up. History gives us numerous examples of people who've been declared saints for putting up with far less than what women in India have to go through on a regular basis. So when someone, however familiar, makes an uncomfortable advance, don't hesitate to raise a red flag immediately.

You're on the street, thinking pleasant thoughts, when you see that most charming of sights: someone spitting on the road. Alternatively, you seethe in indignation as someone casually litters, or wanders around scratching themselves in obvious glee. And then there's always the possibility of the spectacle of public urination.

YOUR IMMEDIATE RESPONSE: We are non-violent people, but these sudden visual assaults make us want to react with deadly force. Fortunately, the giant brooms to sweep people away that appear in our imaginations don't exist in the real world. But the urge to shout and shame these people is strong, and easily acted upon. According to humorist Shovon Chowdhury, "It comes down to education. Insanitary conditions affect the mind, behaviour, productivity and even real estate prices. They decline." And this is the sort of decline that often enrages people enough to want to start brawls.

TRY THIS INSTEAD: In these situations, we must remember to add a touch of empathy to our anger. Chowdhury reminds us, "The majority of our population, if they go to school at all, go to government schools where never mind the education, you're not even guaranteed a toilet." Nagaswami would agree, "When public toilets are not available, expecting people not to relieve themselves in public doesn't make sense. When peoples' rights are provided for, one can reasonably expect them to discharge civic responsibilities." Even when it comes to spitting, littering or scratching, in a lot of cases people do it simply because everyone else does so, and no one taught them it was wrong. Which doesn't mean we should just let it go, of course. Balasundaram's advice: "For public nuisances like these, people should come together as a community and respond in innovative ways to create awareness. Step up and be a role model. Confront as the public not as an individual."

THIS HAPPENS: You're with friends or family, hoping to catch up on their lives, and tell them about yours. But throughout, they're busy checking their phones, taking calls or messages or perhaps just browsing through Facebook while completely forgetting you're there and waiting. Alternatively, they're too busy photographing everything, from themselves to food, to focus on any real conversation.

YOUR IMMEDIATE RESPONSE: It's completely understandable if you feel like gently taking their phones and slowly dipping them into the nearest available glass of water. Or yelling some version of 'Me! Me! I'm here!' Except that you probably remain silent and slowly devolve into a heap of self-damaging grumpiness.

And this, of course, doesn't even begin to touch upon the trauma inflicted upon our nerves by people behaving badly online: from outright trolling to relentless self-promotion, unwanted tagging and force-adding to social media groups, aggressive commenting, adding, forwarding and spamming at every possible level.

We must recognize, though, that all of us at some point end up behaving oddly in the virtual space-possibly because the rules of good behaviour online are constantly changing, usually slipping into further chaos every now and then.

According to Shalini Anant, PhD, a faculty member in the psychology department of Mumbai's Tata Institute of Social Sciences, "Having so much technology around is likely to make us feel that everything exists for our consumption and convenience. It is possible that it can make us feel that we don't have to be considerate towards other people or other things. One can speculate that it is the digitized life that makes us inconsiderate but I am not sure if this is how it is, because some of us living the digitized life can be considerate, while  others who are not familiar with technology are prone to inconsiderate behaviour."

TRY THIS INSTEAD: The key is to remember that people turn to devices not to be intentionally rude, but because it's perfectly natural compulsive behaviour in today's world. So criticizing them isn't the solution. Balasundaram advises us, when it's near and dear ones behaving like this, to "pull the emotional plug. Say, 'I miss your company' or 'I want you to talk to me' or 'When you are on the phone while I am talking to you, I feel you are not listening to me.'

"When you are multitasking as a parent (working on a computer, talking to your child, taking a phone call on the side) you are not doing justice to your child. If as a parent you know that your child is missing you, you will sit up and take notice," Balasundaram explains. "Be role models at home and  make a conscious effort. As a family come up with a "screen time rule." Put off the phone while having meals with your family. The phone shouldn't be part of your being. Family time is important and show that your family is priority in action. You may miss a few phone calls... but that's OK. Being purposeful helps."

THIS HAPPENS: You see someone being terribly rude to domestic help, or service staff, or anyone they perceive to be socially inferior.

YOUR IMMEDIATE RESPONSE: Everyone wants to be a knight in shining armour, but in these cases we know it's mostly futile: people's feudal attitudes are often very deeply ingrained. So while publicly shaming people for bad behaviour with those 'serving' them is very tempting, we often tend to judge them and move on.

Anant explains that this behaviour stems from 'in-group' and 'out-group' perceptions. "In-group perception would be how we perceive people who are from within our group or the group we identify with. And out-group perception is just the opposite. Because when we don't interact with the 'other' group we are more likely to dislike them as well as stereotype them, instead of trying to understand their perspective."

TRY THIS INSTEAD: This one's easy: treat people well yourself, without exception, and hope that this behaviour spreads-its rewards are usually easily visible. Dr Shelja Sen, a Delhi-based child and adolescent psychologist and author of All You Need is Love, The Art of Mindful Parenting, reminds us that it's all about learning good behaviour by example at an early age. "I believe in strong values. As adults, if we are building the right values in ourselves and around us, our children will follow it. Giving lectures or sermons or advice to children doesn't work," explains Sen. "Our kids may also pick up things from others they come in contact with. So if your child is being rude to the domestic help, rather than being reactive and angry, gently yet firmly tell the child 'What you just did is not acceptable, we are not rude to people who help us.'  " You can't tell adults the same thing so directly, of course, but every time you behave well with someone, you're making the world better.

LET'S FACE IT: We're all guilty of at least one of the behaviours mentioned here at some point. We've justified it-we were in a hurry, or desperate, or just not paying attention. We've felt bad, but we've gone with it, resolving to try better next time. And that's fine.

It's easy to slip: the point is to know where the line is, and to try to hold it. It's not as if the world we live in now is inherently barbaric: there are just many new ways to behave badly, and too much visible evidence of other people just letting things slide, which always has a cascading effect. But it's not at all difficult to do better. We don't have to aim at being a parfit gentil knight, like PG Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster did. All we have to try to do is be the best we can, and we'll find that nothing happened to good manners: they were within us all along.

Samit Basu is a writer in several media, best known for his novels. He is usually well-mannered except on Twitter @samitbasu

Caveperson or Civilized?
Find out your place on Darwin's queue with our quiz
BY Genesia Alves

1. What is the distance generally accepted as one's personal space?

a. Ideally 18 inches but not closer than a foot.
b. Three feet.
c. I can't answer, someone is reading this over my shoulder.

2. You have just met your friend's grandmother. You address her
a. as your friend suggested when you asked, with a respectful 'aunty', 'nani' or Mrs Sharma.
b. with a formal handshake.
c. as you would any new acquaintance, "Are you on Facebook?"

3. When someone has just talked unnecessarily non-stop for five minutes, you
a. wait till they're finished and then excuse yourself from the conversation.
b. keep listening while inwardly hoping they run out of breath.
c. say, "No. Wait. Listen to me. Five     minutes? I can hold anyone's attention for much longer."

4. A young mother with a baby is holding up the queue in the aircraft.You
a. offer to help her with her hand luggage.
b. wait quietly, hoping that baby doesn't spend the flight crying.
c. click your tongue audibly and roll your eyes at the next person.

5. The expressions 'thank you', 'please' and 'excuse me' are
a. vital to a civilized society.
b. a pleasant way to ease brief interactions with strangers.
c. defunct, meaningless niceties that impress no one but your KG teacher.

6. When it comes to neighbours, staff, etc., you teach your children to

a. briefly wish them when they meet them.
b. say hello if they come face to face.
c. ignore them. Why do the kids need to talk to random adults?

7. Entering with a huge crowd in a busy mall, you
a. hold the door open for the next     person who then holds it for the next.
b. swing it open widely and hope the next person catches it.
c. say, "Huh? There's a doorman. That's his job. Not mine."     

8. At dinner, your mobile phone is best
a. out of sight.
b. on silent mode, face-down but on the table in case the babysitter calls.
c. checked every three minutes, especially when someone else is talking.

9. You've received an e-mail that CCs 200 people's visible e-mail addresses to a play. You

a. RSVP to just the sender.
b. reply to the sender 'gently reminding' him that he has erred in e-mail etiquette.
c. hit Reply All with an enthusiastic 'Yes!' and what you'll be wearing.

10. You meet a friend with a large tummy. She hasn't mentioned a pregnancy. You
a. say she looks well and leave it at that.
b. refuse to comment on her physical appearance at all.
c. grab her tummy and insist you want to feel the baby kick.

11. You're in the middle of discussing important work matters with a colleague when you step into a crowded lift. You
a. momentarily pause the conversation until you get off at your floor.  
b. talk in theatric whispers using 'codes'.
c. continue. It would be rude of them to eavesdrop.

12. You have a terrible cough and cold but have to go out in public. You're
a. armed with handkerchiefs, tissues, throat lozenges.
b. standing outside any public space until the dratted sniffle-attack passes.
c. just hoping other people feel sympathetic when they see how vigorously you have to cough in     whichever direction you're facing.

13. You have small children and you're at a restaurant. You
a. insist they sit at the table at all times and make sure they are entertained.
b. never took your young children to any restaurant other than a kiddie burger place.
c. let them run around if they want. They're kids after all.

14. An article online is at complete odds with your most dearly held personal beliefs. You feel compelled to comment. You

a. write a short comment stating your disagreement citing basic reasons.  
b. write an impassioned, concise refutation with links to a longer blog     post you spent hours composing.
c. go through comments, replying angrily to every commenter who has agreed with the post and threatening them. Fortunately, you're still 'Anonymous'.

15. An elderly person gets on a crowded bus. You

a. offer them your seat.
b. get up and loudly insist they take your seat.
c. don't make eye contact by looking meaningfully at the reserved seats in front.

Your results.

Mostly As: You get it. Manners are a give and take and you let your inner kindness and empathy guide you.
You tailor your responses according to your environment, are alert to both verbal and non-verbal cues and are not afraid to ask what is appropriate when necessary. Your personality shines!

Mostly Bs: You read a book on etiquette and now you want to bump everyone on the head with it. You know the 'right' way to behave in every situation but you being such a stickler is making everyone uncomfortable, especially yourself! Relax a little.

Mostly Cs: You're reading this in your ivory tower or your cave or some-where you've been untouched by any learnings in social civility. You have to learn to think about the comfort of other people or we will have to introduce you to the person who got Mostly Bs.



Art and culture flourished throughout Europe during the Renaissance. It was the period when Michelangelo wielded his chisel, Galileo defied preconceived notions about the universe and William Shakespeare penned some of the most enduring dramatic works. It was also a period that saw the evolution of manners, as the article "Mind Your Manners" in the Spring 2011 issue of Folger magazine will attest. Manners were a response to the violence and crude behaviors run rampant in burgeoning cities and a means of reinforcing social order and distinguishing the privileged class from everyone else. A first generation of Miss Manners-es—typically men—took up the quill. And the newly defined codes of conduct were especially important at the dinner table.

Italy more or less led the cultural revolution, table manners included. Italian poet Giovanni della Casa advised in "Galateo," his 1558 book on manners: "One should not comb his hair nor wash his hands in public... The exception to this is the washing of the hands when done before sitting down to dinner, for then it should be done in full sight of others, even if you do not need to wash them at all, so that whoever dips into the same bowl as you will be certain of your cleanliness." To the modern reader, these attitudes toward public displays of personal cleanliness might seem a little over the top; however, considering that one's hands were also one's dining utensils, this sort of advice was of utmost importance. In his study on the social customs of this period, sociologist Norbert Elias noted that "In good society one does not put both hands into the dish. It is most refined to use only three fingers of the hand. ... Forks scarcely exist, or at most for taking meat from the dish."

That's right: no forks. They were initially viewed as excessively refined or, in the case of men, a sign of effeminacy. The newfangled fork custom began in Italy and was a hit, but forks were slow to catch on in Northern Europe. The use of forks to get food from plate to mouth didn't didn't gain wide acceptance until the 17th century—and even then, only the well-to-do could afford them.

Utensils such as spoons were communally used—making the etiquette of eating soups a delicate matter. "If what is given is rather fluid," Dutch theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam writes, "take it on a spoon for tasting and return the spoon after wiping it on a napkin."

But in spite of trying to polish social customs, some human behaviors were deemed permissible at the dinner table. On farting, Erasmus writes, "If it is possible to withdraw, it should be done alone. But if not, in accordance with the ancient proverb, let a cough hide the sound." Slick, no? However, lest you follow this example, modern manners maven Miss Conduct says that "civilized folk will protect others from any sounds or smells that may be displeasing."

This is not to say that all Renaissance manners are outdated. On respecting fellow diners' personal space, Giovanni Della Casa says, "It is also an unsuitable habit to put one's nose over someone else's glass of wine or food to smell it." And again, from Erasmus: "It is rude to offer someone what you have half eaten yourself; it is boorish to redip half-eaten bread into the soup." Anyone remember the "did you just double dip that chip" episode of Seinfeld? George Costanza was definitely a couple hundred years behind the etiquette curve. Even modern science shows that re-dipping partially-eaten foods is a great means of spreading bacteria. It certainly gives you an idea of what Renaissance society was trying to improve upon—and how far we've come since.

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About Jesse Rhodes

Jesse Rhodes is a former Smithsonian magazine staffer. Jesse was a contributor to the Library of Congress World War II Companion.

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