Sorry! The English and Their Manners

A history of etiquette suggests its spiritual dimension.

Sorry! The English and their Manners, by Henry Hitchings, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pp.

In an era when savage verbal attacks are part of the mundane fabric of online life, discussing manners feels a little bit like comparing knitting techniques at the firing range. In Twitter battles and stand-offs in online comments sections, calls for more civilized discourse take on the out-of-touch character of a prison guard encouraging chain-gang members to whistle while they work. While most of us can agree that public exchanges grow coarser and more ferocious by the year, those who are refined enough to choose the proper fork at the dinner table seem the least likely to improve the situation. Like the authors of modern etiquette manuals, such figures are rarely received as leaders so much as sophisticated scolds, concerned less with reforming the behavior of unwashed ruffians than with trumpeting their own superior breeding.

In other words, Henry Hitchings, the author of Sorry! The English and Their Manners has his work cut out for him. Thankfully, he seems to relish ripping the vanities and entitlements of self-proclaimed behavioral experts to shreds. Hitchings, who has written four books on English language and culture, has earned a reputation as that rare nonfiction author who suffuses his rigorous (and at times slightly eccentric) scholarly research with enough wit and lively skepticism to render otherwise dull passages entertaining. This reputation proves accurate: as the author embarks on his colorful, rambling, and critically exacting exploration of the evolution of English rules of behavior, it becomes obvious that he could make a detailed history of the canned food industry sing like a coloratura. Although Hitchings is the full-time theater critic for the London Evening Standard, he comes across more as a scattered but lovable history professor whose classes are legendarily entertaining (and, at times, legendarily digressive).

Still, digressions can be necessary when you're painting a portrait as vivid as the one Hitchings offers in "Sorry!" Within the first few pages of the book, in fact, we learn that social encounters in the Middle Ages were so shadowed by the threat of violence as to inspire the first movement toward an English code of conduct.

Or as Hitchings puts it, "[Y]ou see an awful lot of other people's dirty, blemished bodies" and "[y]ou blow your nose directly into your hand." Also: "People were less disturbed than you would be by the presence of lice and the pervasive aroma of shit." .

Descriptions like these make modern American prejudices about etiquette look hopelessly unexamined. In this context, after all, manners aren't a matter of curtsying appropriately so much as a means of curtailing the human tendency to pick noses, belch, or spit while in close contact with others. When the streets are littered with dead animals and human feces, Hitchings proposes, it's fairly obvious why one might embrace "the idea of self-control as a virtue."
Not only does Hitchings charm us with illustrative details straight out of the gate, but, as he advances from medieval mores through the Renaissance and on to the Victorian era, he never loses sight of the conflicts inherent in the regulation of human behavior. "Manners can be interpreted as symptoms of repression; when one views society from above … collective repression looks useful, but to the individual it may seem a frustrating denial of life's zing and zest. It requires us to make sacrifices, conceal passions, and hold back urges."
Unlike so many champions of etiquette before him, for whom tunnel vision and arrogance are well-used rhetorical weapons, Hitchings is anxious to serve as his own devil's advocate each step of the way. And as an author with an obvious lust for semantic distinctions, he's highly sensitive to the finest gradations of meaning in the terms and standards he examines, a sensitivity which is put to good work here. The term chivalry, for example, may currently be viewed as indicating only a veneer of ceremony," but in the Middle Ages, chivalry wasn't so much a product of "sterile conformism" but instead "emphasized that within the collective ethos of military virtue there was a special place for the individual and his journey." In other words, chivalry had little to do with reflexively opening the door for ladies, and much more to do with inspiring a knight to become more than an armored killing machine.
These shades of personal fulfillment and higher purpose aren't something we normally associate with manners and etiquette, and Hitchings does a nice job of teasing out the ideals driving each of the behavioral manuals he explores. Italian Renaissance diplomat and author Baldassare Castiglione, for example, bestrode the more common role of naysayer and perpetuator of the status quo in his guide, "The Book of the Courtier," elevating the well-mannered life to something more charismatic and inspiring than mere conformity to restrictive norms.

His concept of sprezzatura, for example, which is defined as "effortless excellence, an ability to mask one's desires, a nonchalant artfulness or studied carelessness," brings to mind the willful casualness of James Dean or Frank Sinatra. Castiglione urged a subtle form of grace, advocating some "perfect little touch of elegance or refinement" that might be interpreted as "a sign of vast unseen continents of sophistication." Hitchings's description here feels particularly apt in the age of rampant self-promotion and humble-bragging: "Displaying some wondrous part of ourselves is a way of suggesting that we are wondrous through and through. This is the art of 'less is more': to make a good impression we disclose only a few sparkling details."
Such loftiness aside, Hitchings never shies away from the inherent comedy of his subject matter. He somewhat gleefully describes "Roland le Pettour (Roland the Farter)," who was "granted thirty acres of land in Suffolk on condition of annually at Christmas performing – all at once – a leap, a whistle and a fart." He also recounts the plum-colored loafers he himself wore in college, which caused many of his classmates to voice their loud assumptions about his sexuality and which inspired a stranger to stop his car in the middle of a busy street to inform him, "It's people like you who are bringing this country to her knees." (Fringed "Achy Breaky Heart" T-shirts were bringing America to her knees around roughly the same time.) 

The author also appreciates the odd little ways that the well-mannered manage to have their cake and eat it, too: Italian patrician Giovanni della Casa's "Galateo," for example, counsels that "one ought never to present a friend with something pungent and say, 'Please smell how this stinks'; one's impulse should instead be to say, 'Don't smell this, because it stinks.' "
In keeping with Hitchings's distracted-professor alter ego, though, the book's organization is fairly jumbled, with topical chapters on table manners and fashion interrupting a chronological history of etiquette. The flow of Hitchings's writing can also feel pretty rambling and circuitous, as he lurches forward and backward in time, ranging from 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Tina Fey's "Bossypants" in a matter of paragraphs.

While the sharpness of Hitchings's analysis and the intensity of his passion for his subject shine through on every page, his tendency toward abstractions and philosophical underpinnings, when paired with his very loose organization and his hesitance to wrap up or summarize too neatly, can make it challenging to follow his thoughts wherever they lead. The book sags a bit in the middle, even if anecdotes about George Costanza and statements like "[T]he English take a kinky delight in acknowledging their faults" have a way of snapping the reader awake.
And of course Hitchings can't help but get a little high and mighty eventually. In a chapter on the bad manners of children, the author asserts that today's kids are "encouraged to believe in their superlative importance, and while this is meant to empower them, its result is often a cosseted, bratty egomania." As hard as it is to disagree with this, the chapter doesn't offer the evidence to back his claims that we find elsewhere, beyond citing a child in a restaurant who nearly poked his eye out with a cocktail stick.

And in his chapter on technology, Hitchings describes the aggression and unfocused blathering of social media as if it's a new kind of feces in the street: "Rather than freeing us, these [social media] technologies risk making us bored commuters, dissociated from everything except our febrile and inconsistent self-love." Such statements, while chillingly resonant, clearly veer into the territory of "Please smell how this stinks."
Without a doubt, though, Hitchings is on to something. It may be easy to roll our eyes at the latest archaic push for better etiquette, yet it feels true that some collective sense of personal refinement and grace have been lost to the new coddling of children and the new coddling of our own egos in soothing social media cocoons. As free as we are to express ourselves and indulge our impulses these days, there's some pull beyond nostalgia that fuels our longing for the clear and simple behavioral rules of the '50s and '60s. As oppressive and trivial as such rules may seem, for Hitchings, our very souls are at stake.

"[T]he ability to evaluate and regulate the effects we have on other people is part of a fine awareness of our selves," Hitchings writes. "If we stop thinking about those effects, if we stop caring, we are not expressing the freedom and wonder of our selves, but limiting them."

In this age of narcissism and anxiety and self-doubt, good manners might just boil down to this simple entreaty: Remember to consider other people's feelings, be quiet, and listen more often. And when someone or something looks poised to offend your sensibilities? Well, don't smell that, because it probably stinks.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.