Rosemary Stones, Under Manners

Never let it be said that I do not review diverse things? From last weekend’s column:

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In a pile of old unsorted books I recently discovered something rather surprising; a guide to etiquette for teenagers. Titled Under Manners: A Teenage Guide to Etiquette this book, by Rosemary Stones, aimed to help teenagers with such difficult questions as the meaning of “RSVP”, the correct way to dispose of chewing gum, and that all-important question—“should a boy offer to carry a girl’s books if she’s a feminist?”

Under Manners was published in 1991. It’s a mystery, therefore, how it ended up among my books; I was nowhere near teen-age at the time. In the twenty years since this book was published, quite a lot about the world has changed, and when I found it I wondered how something like a book on etiquette could work as a cultural artefact. What important dilemmas around everyday social behaviour were prevalent in the early 1990s? How hopelessly out of date would they seem in 2013? The answer, it seems, is not as much as I expected.

In some ways, the late 80s and early 90s feel like a different world. When Stones suggests that by the age of eighteen one should endeavour to be able to “type” and “use a computer”, these things are still seen as skills that need to be learned rather than inherent and necessary parts of our lives. Foreign food (Stones is  British and the book is addressed to children in the UK) seems limited to “French”, “Indian” and “Chinese”, and various word lists are given to help decipher their respective restaurant menus. Yet strangely, the ability to eat with chopsticks is seen as a necessary skill. “It is not very stylish to ask for a spoon and fork”.

Other ways in which the book seems alien include an extensive table explaining how to address various titled people in formal letters. The hypothetical reader’s correspondents include the Queen, a selection of Dukes, Marchionesses, Earls, Countesses, and Mayors who, apparently, are to be addressed as “His Worship, the Mayor of –” even if they are women. It’s a little difficult to imagine that teenagers who mingle with this exalted company and go to dinners where they may be wearing evening gloves (which must be taken off before eating anything, “even if it’s just an olive”) need to be told what “black-tie” signifies, or that they must not pick their noses or squeeze their spots in public.

And yet in some ways Under Manners feels like it could have been written today. We still see men whining about how difficult it is to know whether or not they should open doors for women or help them carry things; here’s Stones suggesting (as, it’s easy to forget, people have been doing for decades) that perhaps these courtesies could be extended to anyone who looks like they might appreciate them, regardless of gender. Swearing is perfectly acceptable, unless around people who will be shocked by it. A section on sexual etiquette solves the problem of how to respond to men grossed out by women menstruating (solution: do not have sex with immature people) or to people who say “I love you” in the throes of passion. We’re instructed to address women as “Ms.” until we find out that they prefer a different title, and not to despise small talk as a way of making people comfortable (sample conversation opener: “What’s the most disgusting food that you enjoy eating? Mine is goats’ feet”). We are told how to apologise to friends after getting drunk and throwing up on their floors, how to buy inexpensive wine and look like we know what we’re doing, how to freeze out a racist or a homophobe at a party without breaking furniture. I have bookmarked certain pages for future reference.

So what has changed in the last twenty years? Technology, certainly, though I suppose I now know how to address an email to the queen. And I’m unlikely ever to wear gloves to dinner. In all other respects, though, the world seems disappointingly similar.

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