You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What Happens When the British Stop Being Polite and Start Getting Real

Intimacy and the decline of manners in society

Image via shutterstock

Is intimacy always a good thing? It has become customary to suggest that it is. But rather than being democratic, intimacy can be troublesome. Today we are obliged to be relaxed. Casualness is mistaken for fairness. The idea that each of us should do what makes us feel comfortable does not result in other people’s comfort and hardly seems to improve our own. I’ll call this the paradox of laxity: to paraphrase the sociologist Norbert Elias, we are constrained to be unconstrained. There is a self-consciousness about this relaxedness: when someone professes to be “chilling,” the mood is not in fact sedate.

The flipside of instant intimacy is instant hostility. We are quick to adopt a hollow or at any rate cool intimacy, as for instance when kissing someone we barely know on the cheek, but quick also to tear into others or pepper them with candid advice and personal remarks. An example from my own experience: in a restaurant in Egypt, a British tourist—to whom I had never spoken, though we knew each other by sight—stopped me as I was helping myself to pudding, saying, “Don’t eat that: a minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.” When I smarted, she insisted that she was “only trying to be helpful.” This taunting semi-helpfulness concluded with the observation that “It would be awful if one day you just keeled over.” It is but a step from this to rank abuse, the overt hostility we feel able to show people because we don’t know them and expect not to see them again. Walking through a railway station, at Christmas, I chance on a shopper berating a worker from a nearby building site; I have no idea what he has said or done to her, but she is spraying him with invective, confident that she can at any moment retreat through a ticket barrier—“Who the fuck do you think you are? You don’t fucking know me, you deaf cunt.”

I don’t believe that this kind of behavior is completely new, but it feels as if it is on the rise. I say this a little tentatively because it may simply be that I have become more sensitive to it. Writing a book about manners has made me notice conduct I might previously have overlooked. Still, the view prevails that manners have declined (or are in decline).

Canvassing opinions in my native England about why this may have happened, I heard about multiculturalism, sexual freedom, the perils of individualism, the impact of technology, the Sunday Trading Act of 1994, the decimalization of currency in 1971, the end of the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover (in 1960), the encroachment of liberal values on school teaching, the encroachment of capitalism on just about everything, the cult of efficiency, the shrinking of the public sector, the bloated public sector, tight clothing, very loose clothing, men no longer wearing ties, the pampered ennui of James Bond, the concept of “unisex,” in-ear headphones, hip-hop, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1968s, the European Union, TV, the gutter press, hard drugs, the growing acceptance of soft drugs, atheism, lazy agnosticism, religious extremism, the poor quality of modern diet, the wide use of agrochemicals and food additives, mass-produced housing and the rupturing of long-established neighborhoods, the decline of the “family business” and the fraying of family life. I also heard about institutional sloth and political niaiserie. Samuel, a sixty-two-year-old jeweler, spoke for many in declaring that “Good manners have disappeared because there’s no discipline. Nobody trusts the fucking government, nobody trusts the fucking police. The Church is mostly run by … you know”—he makes a pungent claim—“so you can’t trust them, can you? Who do kids look up to? I’ll tell you who—fucking celebrities. Where’s the good of that? Women’s lib has got something to do with it, too.”

Samuel touches on an important subject here. In Britain, the move towards greater gender equality began before the twentieth century, and the suffragettes achieved significant progress, especially after becoming more militant in the years just before the First World War. In the 1960s a fresh wave of activism, partly inspired by the American writer Betty Friedan, addressed issues in law as well as in culture. Friedan wrote powerfully about the need for women to turn away from investing in domesticity, which made a woman “an anonymous biological robot” who “looks for security in things” and “lives a vicarious life through mass daydreams and through her husband and children.” Long after Friedan’s disavowal of female servitude, iniquities remain, but there have been palpable improvements in women’s political, educational and legal opportunities. As Theodore Zeldin has written: “There are two types of women in the world today of whom there were very few in the past: the educated and the divorced.”

The rhetoric that has accompanied the improvement of women’s rights has complicated many men’s understanding of how they should behave towards women—or rather, towards individual women they encounter. The questions that result are often small but fraught with serious implications. Is a man on a bus or train who gives up his seat for a woman an example of sensitivity or a patronizing patriarchy? If he does not give up his seat, is he failing to be chivalrous or renouncing what he sees as an outmoded practice?

As a child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was encouraged to believe that I ought to hold doors open for others, especially if they were encumbered. But I can remember, when I was no more than nine, holding the door of a bakery for a heavily laden woman and being berated as “a bloody sexist.” About twenty years later I was surprised, as I helped an elderly woman with her heavy shopping bags, to be abused by a woman cycling past: “Don’t think you’re something you’re not, you sexist prick.”

Fundamentally, sexism is the belief that one sex is superior to the other. Yet it is a many-headed monster. Clearly my behavior in the two cases just mentioned was not hostile, missionary sexism, but it would be construed by some as benign sexism—an act of differentiation, though not of discrimination, seen as paternalistic and condescending, though many people of both sexes might regard it as charming, honorable or simply human.

Could the phenomenon identified as social collapse really just be a reflection of the multifariousness of our interests? Is the much mythologized communal sociability a way of putting off the need to take charge of one’s own well-being? Is there a case for saying that the mechanisms of communal living, which create webs of dependence and reciprocity, exist (or existed) only so as to dampen the threat of our crude animal drives? That in a highly technologized society, which is also a heavily medicated one, this threat can be—and is—dampened in other ways?

Decline is something we are always noticing. Long historical perspectives are not usually available to us; we see what is in front of our noses, rather than slow processes. The comparisons we make are confident but historically dubious. We regard ourselves as good at identifying excess and deficit: someone drinking or eating too much, not getting out enough, working too hard of too little, spending too little time with family or too little effort on personal grooming, being too loud or failing to make enough noise to be heard. Evidently we fancy that we know what the right amount of these things is. Yet the right amount is something we establish by reacting to our experience of what feels like the wrong amount; it is rarely appreciated when present. Something similar occurs when we talk about decline: we praise a state of affairs for which we would never have expected to feel such affection. Declinism is the dark side of nostalgia, homesickness for a place we never really loved. 

Henry Hitchings is the theater critic for the London Evening Standard.

Excerpted from Sorry!: The English and Their Manners by Henry Hitchings, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2013 by Henry Hitchings. All rights reserved.