Two truths tend to strike people around middle age: Money buys less than it once did, and manners are in decline.

Everyone has a personal bugbear. What is yours? For many, it is the inconsiderate leaching of private noise into public space: the tinny beat of rock music on someone’s else’s iPod, the marital row conducted via cellphone, the muffled “bling” of a neighbor’s text message interrupting a crucial moment of dramatic tension in the movie theater. For others, it is the offhand, even offensive, treatment by those who should show more respect: waiters, salespersons, teenagers. When manners fail to smooth the path of social intercourse, the result can stink. I recently walked along an alley in London where a furious resident had chalked a circle on the pavement and a message to a repeat offender: “Stop your dog shitting here!”

As Henry Hitchings’s Sorry! demonstrates, the complaint that rudeness is on the rise is as old as society itself. And though throughout history new forms of sociability breed new codes of conduct, our core concerns about others’ unacceptable behavior remain remarkably consistent. Manners “shield us from aggression, insults, contact with other people’s bodily fluids (and those of their pets), exposure to others’ rubbish, unpleasant details of their lives, and also often the truth.” It is this last aspect that makes the study of manners so fascinating. It is a history of what we prefer not to see and hear, and thus also a history of what really gets—and lies—under our skin.

Hitchings’s book is broadly chronological in structure. It explores the history of conventions regarding polite behavior in England from the Middle Ages to the present, while also raising the philosophical question of how manners relate to morality, what distinguishes English decorum from that of other nations, and what place etiquette might have in modern life. This is a very broad remit, and the result is a rather rambling inquiry that is frequently sidetracked and does not pursue any of its lines of argument as thoroughly as one might wish. It contains, however, many entertaining facts and anecdotes of the kind that tempt one to annoy one’s spouse by saying, “listen to this, darling,” when he or she is in the middle of watching the news.

Medieval life, Hitchings argues, was marked by a need to contain and regulate violence. Thus, customs evolved that we still observe, such as placing an honored guest to one’s right—towards which the host can draw his sword, should the need arise—and polite conventions such as not attacking an enemy while he is “at stool” (defecating). Since there was no real distinction between private and public space, boundaries and hierarchies were maintained largely through “the symbolic effects of gesture.” Crossing one’s legs or closing one’s eyes in company could be interpreted as a deliberate insult. Looking skyward when belching was considered polite. Going down on one knee (rather than both knees) demonstrated partial submission while preserving one’s personal honor: Gentlemen proposing marriage still unconsciously practice this subtle social negotiation.

As Renaissance society increasingly promoted a culture of courtiers rather than feudal warriors, the study of “courtesy” (courtly behavior) gathered pace. Costume books, providing models for imitation, began to circulate in the 1560s, and the 16th century saw English translations of Castiglione’s suave Book of the Courtier, which emphasized how nobility could be performed through charm, affability, modesty, and talent. There were also home-grown guides to self-improvement, like Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Governour: a text that aimed to equip Tudor men for positions of authority. Elyot’s recommendation that prospective power-brokers learn chess, avoid games involving dice, and refresh themselves with music still seems fair enough; his less fortunate later advice to avoid all fruits, as they often cause “putrid fevers,” may be partially responsible for the want of fiber in English political life.

Embarrassments still arose, of course, despite the efforts of courtesy counselors to prevent them. Famously, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, let off a loud fart when making a deep bow to Queen Elizabeth I. He was so ashamed that he left the country for several years. Allegedly, on his return, Elizabeth greeted him with the double-edged assurance: “My lord, I had forgot the fart.”

While early books on manners were directed squarely at men and had little to say concerning women except that they should be as modest and unobtrusive as possible, by the 18th century, women were both authors and readers of texts on polite behavior. A delightful spoof conduct book by Jane Collier, An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting (1753), offers sage advice on how to annoy one’s friends: “If you have no children, keep as large a quantity of tame animals as you conveniently can .  .  . of the most troublesome and mischievous sort.” She especially recommends squirrels and monkeys.

Collier’s ironic enjoyment in instructing people to “remember always to do unto everyone, what you would least wish to have done unto yourself” signals the beginning of a backlash against the power-play invoked in prose about propriety. And no wonder. Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son Philip, widely circulated as canny, sometimes caustic, guidance to the man-about-town, argued that women were “only children of a larger growth” and that men should only “trifle” and “play” with them. He also suggested that a gentleman should often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh. At a time of dreadful dentistry, doubtless this advice spared onlookers the spectacle of cavities measureless to man. But it deservedly inspired resistance from those, like Jane Collier, who chose to have a good guffaw at the egotism of manners-mongers who took themselves far too seriously.

The social purpose of civility was, in the 18th century, the subject of intense philosophical debate, and Hitchings is at his most interesting when discussing the differences of opinion expounded by those, like Chesterfield, who saw manners as a veneer—an act performed wholly cynically in order to get on in life—and those, like the Earl of Shaftesbury, who saw manners as a form of morality writ small, a way of behaving that treats everyone well regardless of status and improves all concerned. As Shaftesbury argues: “All politeness is owing to liberty. We polish one another and rub off our corners and rough sides by a sort of amicable collision.”

Hitchings, one senses, sympathizes with the latter view, while also acknowledging that “manners express power relationships,” often reinforcing the social similarities and differences they appear to seek to erase, and that “assiduously practicing equality, displaying one’s commitment to it, is itself an act of dominance.” Among the many paradoxes that the study of manners exposes is the fact that an act of ostentatious deference—such as opening a door for an employee one has just fired—can also be an act of assertion. The Victorians understood this: Thomas Hood, a popular 19th-century humorist, produced a cartoon called “Civil War,” in which the soldiers are fighting while expressing irreproachably polite sentiments. “After you,” calls one, as he pursues his fleeing foe. “Don’t rise,” says another as he bayonets a man to the ground. The punning double meanings, which may amuse or appall us, highlight the inner conflict, embedded in language, between our “civil” and “uncivil” impulses.

Nineteenth-century accounts of manners often expose both anxious xenophobia and class warfare. Britain had long complacently contrasted its own social habits with those current in France, which were mocked as overly flamboyant, foppish, “vain and effeminate.” Their very expertise at cookery was suspect. Frenchmen, after all, refused to drink out of glasses used by other people and insisted on using napkins when dining. Eww! The French retorted that the English were anti-intellectual, gruff, and loutish.

By the time Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) was published, Britain had found a new target for its jokes at the expense of other nations’ behavior. Trollope, a working mother who struggled to support a large brood of children, didn’t enjoy her three-and-a-half years in the United States, and when she returned to England, she turned enmity into pen-mity. The Americans were Philistines, she reported; they didn’t read books, only trashy newspapers. They were vulgar in other ways, too: Money was spent and discussed too freely; they were coarse and familiar in address (she regarded the fact that her neighbors called her children “honey” as an affront of “violent intimacy”); and they were guilty of “overweening .  .  . self-esteem, both national and individual.”

Worse than all this, they spat. Chewing tobacco and ejecting the quid from one’s mouth after enjoying it was the “plague-spot” of America. “I hardly know any annoyance so deeply repugnant to English feelings, as the incessant, remorseless spitting of Americans,” wrote Trollope. This sort of dreadfulness was music to British readers’ ears: Domestic Manners was an instant bestseller, and “trollopize” became a verb meaning “to disparage America.”

Hitchings’s title seems to promise us the key to how and why English manners differ from those of other nations; but really, the scope of the book doesn’t allow for full-throated analysis of this intriguing topic. For readers who want an extended, anthropologically sound but amusingly irreverent account of why the English behave as they do, I recommend Kate Fox’s more successful Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (2004), which Hitchings also references. Like Fox, Hitchings traces the peculiarity of English behavior, which can strike foreigners as both primly uptight and (especially after alcohol) disagreeably uncouth, to a national “dis-ease,” an awkwardness in company that ultimately derives from the small size of the country. As we are so tightly packed together, we prefer to compartmentalize and distance others. We “place” them socially, while avoiding eye contact. We love eccentricity and cultivate ironic detachment. Perhaps most puzzlingly for Americans, we have an arm’s-length and mistrustful view of ostentatious patriotism: Nothing could be more British than a shrug and an eye-roll when the subject of one’s country, government, weather​—​or, indeed, job​—​is concerned.

It is the informal moan at the bus stop rather than the high-five at the Fourth of July parade that creates the reassuring fabric of national togetherness. We don’t have cheerleaders. English people tend to find organized enthusiasm at best mindless and at worst creepy. In terms of A. A. Milne’s classic series of children’s stories about Winnie the Pooh, the English are Eeyore—the morose but sympathetic donkey—while Americans are Tigger, the exuberant but exhausting tiger.

Are English manners really in decline? Hitchings concludes that they are not, or at least not “across the board.” He sees complexity: “multitudes of conflicting manners, fraught with ambiguity.” Technology has provided us with new sources of potential embarrassment and infringements of privacy: the Internet troll, the casually barbed comment that goes viral, the selfie that (as one Swedish politician noticed too late after posting) not only includes one’s shorts but also one’s curlies. We negotiate these new shared territories, often poised between the public and the private, with uncertainty; we have a greater sense of our legal rights and social entitlements than previous generations did.

However, Hitchings argues, we should continue to “evaluate and regulate the effects we have on other people” as “part of a fine awareness of our selves.” Manners, far from being the Ps and Qs of an outmoded language, continue to be the syntax with which we write our social selves. This is a rather slapdash book, with some of the slipperiness of a hastily assembled sandwich. But it’s hard to argue with the flavor of its final bite.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

Next Page