Etiquette coaches claim to have seen a dive in manners, but what’s behind this apparent lack of civility and what’s expected of us today?
A report released by British think tank Centre for London this month called for the creation of a “Movement Code” for us to encourage “greater civility” on the streets of London. The recommendation has been interpreted as a criticism of declining manners among the British, traditionally famed for their courteous behaviour.
Anna Musson, founder of the Good Manners Company in Sydney, said the same was true in Australia. She claimed smartphones were a big factor behind the dive in civility.
“Before we had phones and the ability to check the weather at any time of the day or find out how tall Brad Pitt is … we would talk to people more, we would engage with other people,” Ms Musson told The New Daily.
She said technology was not “the enemy”, but that sending a text message did not have the same impact as picking up the phone or writing a letter.
“The only thing with using technology for manners purposes is it takes a lot less effort. Where we used to send a ‘thank you’ note for a wonderful weekend at someone’s home, now we would potentially send an SMS. While we might think, ‘Great, I’ve thanked them, I’ve ticked the box’, the impact is less.”
Leah Ruppanner, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Melbourne, disagreed: “Writing a handwritten note, although sweet, might be a little odd.”
She said smartphones had become so closely entwined with people they were now personable ways of communicating.
And sending a text had become more polite than making a phone call, Dr Ruppanner argued.
“A phone call has to be picked up immediately … You send a text because they can pick it up whenever they want. You’re interrupting their life, but you’re allowing them to pick the moment at which it gets interrupted.”
Aside from smartphones, Dr Ruppanner pinned the fall of the ‘thank you’ note on more women entering the workforce.
“A lot of the soft-skilled labour that was being done for politeness was being done by women,” Dr Ruppanner said.
“Part of that slip in decorum is the fact that actually, women are now more equally in the labour market. They’re not staying at home at the same rate, so they’re not necessarily doing the soft-skill handwritten notes.”
She argued a relaxation of traditional etiquette allowed for a more equal society.
“To have a wider range of behaviour that’s considered appropriate is a good thing, because on some level it can be more inclusive.”
A study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology last year rubbished the “moral outrage at incivility”.
Researchers found people had “strong self-serving biases” that was extended to friends, but unfairly perceived rudeness in strangers.
“The difference between what is expected from self and friends and what is expected from others may account for much of the popular moral outrage at incivility in various social realms,” the study said.
Rules to live by
Etiquette coach Ms Musson believes relaxation in formality has led to some “confusion” over who should stand up for whom on public transport.
“I think most people are thinking, ‘Are we still doing that?”
She said the best thing to do was to “default to what’s the most thoughtful option, then you’re always going to be in the clear”.
There were some rules Ms Musson said were not up for debate.
She said the rule of thumb in responding to invitations was to RSVP and thank the host in the same way the invitation came.
“If you’ve received an invitation to a barbecue by text, it’s perfectly acceptable to RSVP by text, and then send a ‘thank you’ by text,” Ms Musson said.
Don’t treat your phone like a third person in a conversation, she said.
“If you need to answer your phone and you’re with someone, say ‘Do you mind if I take this call’ and wait for their response.
“If you’re in a taxi or an uber, say ‘Do you mind if I make a call?’.”