The End of Manners

It’s not about deference, it’s about personal space

“Mr Anthony Atkinson? Do you prefer Anthony or Tony?”

“I prefer Mr Atkinson, actually.”

The bright, practised smile goes brittle. The eyes flick round, as if looking for help.

“Um, we like to keep things informal, here.”

“I dare say you do, but I don’t. Mr Atkinson will do.”

She’s quick on the uptake. The meeting, scheduled for 30 minutes, is done in fifteen. I’ve told her what services I require, she’s told me how much they cost, we’ve signed the papers. All done. There have been no pseudo-friendly little asides that segue into the soft-sell of other products or add-ons that I don’t want or need.

No title, no surname, no help!

“Hiya! Need any help, mate?”

“Good afternoon. You can start by calling me ‘sir’!”

“Oh! Ah. Er…”

“Are you able to assist me, or should I speak to your supervisor?”

“ How can I help you…sir?”

He’s broken. His whole sales technique is based on the assumption of friendliness and the licence it gives him to talk at you and hard sell you kit that helps his commission rather than your needs. Reduced to formality, he is obliged to answer my questions rather than make suggestions. To wait as I examine specifications and so on.

I leave the shop, not with the £1 000 all-the-bells-and-whistles machine he wanted to sell me but with a £300 device that fulfils my needs.

Photo by Danilo Ugaddan from Pexels

Modern life forces many of us into a level of physical intimacy that we tend to accept. Crowded cities, shopping malls, Underground stations, public transport. We are crammed in together with strangers, rubbing shoulders, trying not to step on feet, exposed to each others’ choice of toiletries (or occasionally lack thereof), favourite snacks and musical tastes. It’s been like that for a couple of centuries now, and we’re inured to it.

Our personal space is now largely in our heads. We separate ourselves from each other by controlling our interactions with people. Because admit it, we all need privacy as much as we need company. It’s integral to retaining a sense of ourselves as an individual, unique, not part of some amorphous mass.

Now for most of history, human interactions have been governed by codes — social and occasionally legal — which defined the proper modes of interaction between people. It is true to say that many of these codes were about social stratification and the maintenance of a culture of deference. But underneath that there ran a vein of formality and politeness between equals that had far more to do with maintaining a little distance — a little personal space. It’s no accident that Japanese people -who for much of their history have lived crammed together in houses with (literally) paper-thin walls — place so much emphasis on good manners.

Because we don’t really want everyone around us to be privy to everything that’s going on with us. We have our friends and our families, but we really like to keep the rest of the world at a comfortable distance.

But how to do that in a society that expects -indeed demands -informality in almost all interactions? Where it is now mandatory to use peoples’ given names at all times, in all situations?

At work, you are expected to address everyone from the cleaners to the CEO by their given name. But the structure is hierarchical, people are not equal, so the informality is a lie, isn’t it? Now you do not have to respect the person themselves, but you do have to respect the position they hold. If you don’t, then discipline goes out of the window and productivity follows. The use of given names automatically means that we see them as a person, not a rank, and personal feelings toward them will inevitably influence attitude and your willingness to accept what they say. That’s why the military never went for the given name thing -it’s all about rank and they understand that.

Now this may be personal to me, but the people I work with, or deal with on a day-to-day basis, are not my friends, by and large. They are certainly not family! But because it’s all first names and informality, some of them seem to feel they have a right to plant themselves down next to me at lunch and tell me all about the problems they’re having with their partners/offspring/parents/house/job (delete or add topics to distaste), and then get sniffy when I don’t reciprocate. Well, I don’t want to know your business Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms Whoever, and I certainly don’t want you to know mine. I just want to read my paper or book and eat my sandwich in peace (and yes, it does have meat in it — I’m not in denial about being an apex predator).

That’s bad enough, but don't get me started on the touchy-feely stuff! Just keep your hands to yourself, please! A brief handshake is fine, but that’s the end of it. I don’t want to be hugged by near-strangers, it’s offensive and uncomfortable. My (female) manager tried to hug me at Christmas the first year I worked for her! She’s not family, not a friend, she’s my boss and I don’t (if I’m honest) like her very much — not my type of person. So I made it clear, courteously, that I didn’t consider such behaviour appropriate. She’s been short with me ever since, something I have no problem with. But why did she even do that in the first place? To everyone in the team! No way to run an office! Bosses should keep a distance, surely?

So now we’re all on first name terms, and we’ve got our hands all over each other. Ever think how much that facilitates bullying and sexual harassment?

That’s what formality used to do for us. It allowed us to define our relationships; business, commercial, colleague or personal. It laid down rules and set up barriers -’thus far, and no further’. It allowed for easier dealings because you weren’t talking to a person as such, but an employer, or employee, or sales assistant or bus conductor. Because we now know who everyone is, we can no longer figure out who’s who! And because the codes were laid down, it was easier to spot, and harder to hide, inappropriate behaviour. Mind you, at the time the relationships were so unequal that such behaviour was ignored. Nowadays, people’s perceptions and ideas are different — breaches of acceptable behaviour would be noted and acted on more often, I suspect.

OK, so that’s my opinion, and you’re at liberty to call me all the miserable old gits in the world, of course. Water off a duck’s back, as the saying goes. But next time you find yourself face-to-face with an over-friendly, pushy salesperson, try making them address you formally. It might work for you, like it does for me!