The Magazine

To Manners Born

The English version of civility.

Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By SARA LODGE
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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