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Last Updated: Monday, 9 January 2006, 00:03 GMT
Navigating the manners maze
By Anna Browning
BBC News

KFC's Zinger Crunch Salad ad
Eat with your mouth open and we still cannot bear to look

Listen to some people and you might be forgiven for thinking good manners have gone for ever.

People have no respect, they tell us. They barge, they spit, they swear, they make us feel invisible.

This year no fewer than five books dedicated to manners, and our apparent lack of them, have hit the book shops. It appears we are a nation outraged and while we ourselves are always courteous, why is everyone else so rude?

There are two different ways of holding a knife and they are simply a class distinction - the only way you should never hold a knife is as a weapon
Simon Fanshawe, author

Lynne Truss's moan on manners, Talk to the Hand, was a Christmas book bestseller and seems to have struck a chord.

A recent Kentucky Fried Chicken advert, showing a woman eating with her mouth open, achieved a record 1,671 complaints.

According to Simon Fanshawe, author of The Done Thing - Negotiating The Minefield Of Modern Manners, this showed there was a significant number of us out there battling to instil standards in our children.

"Lots of people are trying, but it's jolly hard," he said. "We need more people to talk about it - they want it to happen."

So does this mean we pine for a time when etiquette was everything? A time of rules and rites designed to trip up the unsuspecting and instil class order?

Dare to shovel your peas (like the French) during the Napoleonic wars and it was not just bad form, it was positively unpatriotic.

Hold your knife like a pen and you faced a fall down the pecking order.

Scene from Watch that Faux Pas, a BBC programme on etiquette, 1947
Chair Always seat and unseat yourself from the right
Napkin Place it - usually folded in half - on your lap shortly after being seated. When finished leave it, unfolded, to the left of the plate
Cutlery Start with the outside fork or spoon and work in. Keep used cutlery on plates - not on the tablecloth - and place your knife and fork side-by-side on your plate when finished
Bread rolls Rolls should be broken in half before buttering. They are not to be used to wipe a plate clean
Soup Soup spoons are moved away from you. Towards the end of a bowl of soup, tilt it slightly away from you and spoon it out
Fork Your fork should be held with the index finger on top of the handle and the "tines" facing downwards
Cutting Food should be cut by moving the wrists, with little or no movement of the elbows
No, says Mr Fanshawe.

"There are two different ways of holding a knife and they are simply a class distinction. The only way you should never hold a knife is as a weapon.

"Table manners are all about flow, so that we can sit around a table and share food. They are all about hospitality, friendship and making time for each other," he said.

"There is a real danger that we are spending less and less time together around a table, without the interruptions of phones, television, whatever, where we just enjoy each other.

"What matters is that we pay attention to people around the table.

"I think what we are seeing is a reaction to that."

Indeed the rules are not always just there to trip you up, they serve a very necessary function, according to psychologist Dr George Erdos of the University of Newcastle.

"Manners are a ritualistic form of behaviour and they inculcate society in ways to enable normal socialising with members of our group," he said.

"They are a form of behaviour control."

There were two aspects to manners, he continued. The first was where their origins were practical, such as how to eat. The other was their use as a "social signalling system".

It's not just countries like Britain who are obsessed with manners and etiquette - Japan is also
Charles Mosley, Debretts
For example, how a fork is used. The more "correct" would not put their index finger on the curvature of the fork.

Others originated from common sense.

How we pick up these rules is in one of three ways. Either from our parents, through observation or being ostracised.

Social lubricant

Charles Mosley, editor-in-chief of Debrett's - the arbiter of etiquette and behaviour - said society needed manners "like an engine needs motor oil". It is the lubricant without which society "seizes up".

As a multicultural society it mattered more and more to know manners and understand our various differences and attitudes, he said.

Another obstacle facing the modern gentleman/woman is technical innovation. When should or shouldn't one switch off one's phone, and when is text acceptable and when is it not?

"That means manners as are conventionally regarded need to be rethought," he said.

Meanwhile, we are confused, he said.

Bus queue
Queuing - we like to do it right

And it's not just Britain.

"The Japanese are incredibly self-disciplined but they keep this social discipline by using elaborate manners," said Mr Mosley.

"The Americans are famously more polite than the British, but they need to be because they are a melting pot."

Even so, we're not that bad, are we?

"My friends' grandchildren are remarkably polite, but the yobbishness of yobs is as bad as it's ever been," said Mr Mosley.

Britain has been famous for its yobbishness for centuries - just look at the way we behaved during the 100 Years War, he said.

"It's just because people can travel more easily now we are more aware of it."

As for that all-too-modern phenomenon road rage?

"Road rage is often because of bad mannered driving. The thing that maddens a lot of people is when people don't signal when they turn left or right, but if you don't do it it's dangerous," he said.

Indeed, the Highway Code is just that - a code - not a law, just good manners.

At the end of the day by being discourteous to someone, you are effectively saying they don't matter. And that is what really annoys us.

Said Mr Mosley: "A gangster would talk about respect a lot. The Kray twins were absolutely obsessed with respect.

"Blofeld always says Mr Bond, not James."

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