Blaikie on Manners

Because I read it, for the most part, in transit, I took a while to get through Thomas Blaikie's slim but heartening book about good behavior, To the Manner Born: A Most Proper Guide to Modern Civility (Villard, 2005). Title notwithstanding, Mr Blaikie is not really very interested in being proper. He lays out his credo, appropriately enough, in his Introduction:

This book is a guide to modern manners. I say: Let's have manner based on common sense and reason; manners that bring people together rather than drive them apart; manners that make people feel comfortable and confident.

And then he proceeds to apply this thought to areas of modern life in which trouble arises. He couldn't, for example, care less about how to write a thank-you note, as long as you're agreeable about it, and everything except acceptances of wedding invitations and condolence letters can be sent by e-mail. In fact, he thinks that we just ought to forget about writing thank-you notes on most occasions: not imprudently, he saves this bombshell for a later chapter, which is subtitled "A Major Rethink." Mr Blaikie is also not interested in which piece of silver you use at dinner, as long as you use it to move food unobtrusively from the plate to your mouth. He does not care, in short, for any prescriptions that do not directly conduce to the general pleasure and comfort.

If there's one thing that Mr Blaikie insist upon, it's paying attention. Most of the lapses that he bullet-points occur not because someone doesn't know what to do but because someone simply isn't thinking.

Zoe is always interrupting. Mrs Gibbs is always being interrupted. Zoe interrupts if she is bored. She doesn't usually know she is doing it. But someone is talking about their holiday, she does. "I may be old, but I don't repepat myself. I've made sure of that," says Mrs Gibbs. "But I only have to utter about two and a half sentences and someone will be sure to interrupt. I blame TV." Matt doesn't interrupt, but he notices others doing it, usually just when the conversation is getting interesting.

zoe, Matt, and Mrs Gibbs may or may not be real people, but they're very handy spokesmen for the different problems that people have in youth, maturity, and age. Mrs Gibbs, at eighty-five, was brought up in a far stricter world, and while she doesn't miss the constraints, she regrets the decline of civility. Matt, fortyish, is clearly an upwardly-mobile Brit, living above the station to which he was born, and he often flounders unconfidently, not sure that he knows how to behave. Zoe is a pert 28, starting out in PR (for which she has a knack). These characters genuinely animate To the Manner Born. For example, take Mr Blaikie on Networking.

Mrs Gibbs recall her mother, at a party in the 1930s, chatting perfectly amiably with someone called the Honorable Mrs Treby. But when Lord Meavy came into the room, some hidden machine in her chair appeared to catapult this honorable across the room toward the lord, leaving Mrs Gibbs Senior high and dry.

Networking is nothing new. But today we see more of the commercial kind. People like Zoe, who is in PR, view every social occasion, regardless of who might be there, as an opportunity to tout for business and build up "contacts." Matt tells of a "really bum evening with this guy completely dominating the conversation, because he was involved in launching a thing called For U, which was a sort of socket you'd have on the outside of your house, where all the stuff you'd ordered on the Internet could be delivered. The idea was that you didn't have to wait for a delivery. He seemed to think it was a bloody amazing idea. He said the supermarkets were interested. This is quite a few years ago. I haven't heard of it catching on, have you?"

Social networking is just social climbing. Zoe would love to go in for it, if she got the chance. She's longing to meet Oprah Winfrey, and she reads all the celebrity magazines with a magnifying glass every week. Her tendency to glance around to see if there isn't someone more important to talk to could well gete out of control.

This is followed up with three bulleted propositions: "Networking is selfish"; "Social networking doesn't work..."; and "How to fight the networkers..." Then come the exceptions. It's all right to make a date with someone who might be helpful to you in your line of work - to talk about it somewhere else at some other time. But: no pushing. When being pushed, decline to continue the conversation at this time. And if you don't realize that so-and-so might be useful until after the party is over, you must make contact through your hosts. "Matt and Lucy were once alarmed to discover that one of their guests, who owned a discount bookstore, had taken to ferociously phoning up another, a publisher, to try to wrest cheap books out of her."

Mr Blaikie can be categorically severe - "Strippers ordered in as a surprise or otherwise are completely and utterly ghastly, and nobody should have anything to do with them ever" (How did he know? It happened to us once, and I couldn't agree more emphatically!) - but when he is, the credo is always plainly in sight. Although he recognizes that his position is now hopeless, Mr Blaikie doesn't believe that hosts have the right to forbid their guests to smoke indoors. "My idea of hospitality is that you put up with your guests, indeed make them feel welcome and comfortable, however unsatisfactory or even ghastly they might turn out to be." In a similar spirit, he chides those who resist invitations because "they just don't want to go":

Is "getting on" the point? Aren't you interested in people, even people who may be quite different from you? Where's your spirit of adventure?

Thanks to the mobile phone, the gregarious Mr Blaikie endorses dropping in, so long as a few sensible guidelines are followed. To would be droppers-in, he cautions, "Don't take offense if they say now's not the best time - unless they are abrupt and seem alarmed/outraged and generally anti-dropping in." Anti-social people are to be chided for their churlishness. This extends to last-minute cancellations, about which Mr Blaikie and I are in the same camp. Last-minute cancellations motivated by anything milder than a trip to the emergency room are intolerable. They're really the reason I stopped giving dinners for eight. I'd compose a table with care, prepare ambitious dishes (successfully, as a rule), and then hear that so-and-so couldn't come because of the need to spend "quality time" with a child. One couple couldn't come to brunch because their cat went missing. A French houseguest was amazed: "This would never happen in France." (We patched things up, but only some time after I returned the compensating check that came in the mail a few days later.) While it's true that you are supposed to enjoy yourself at social gatherings - that's the idea - it is not true that you get to stay home if you're not in a social mood and would rather watch television. Mr Blaikie actually proposes displaying "a list of no-showers conspicuously."

By the end of To the Manner Born - "Staff Manners - Mainly for Customer and Employers" ("Other staff are not really staff." Trainers and stylists are friends whom you pay for services.) - it's clear that thank-you notes aren't the only thing that Mr Blaikie has submitted to a rigorous re-think. He has overhauled the very idea of what an etiquette book ought to look like. There appear to be rules to remember, but these are nothing but applications of Mr Blaikie's central credo that you ought to be able to figure out for yourself once you're familiar with it. He has written a book for everyone, not just those with several sets of china. His manners are of universal application - at least in the Anglophone world. If everyone - and I mean everyone - bore the comfort or others in mind at all times, ours would be quite a wonderful world. Just ask anyone who has been around people who do.

But be sensible, too.

Be careful that you never reach the point where all you see in other people are their manners or you'll end up like Lady Redesdale, the mother of the Mitford sisters, who declared barkingly that Hitler was all right because he "had such charming manners."

Now, if you follow the Daily Blague, then you don't need Mr Blaikie's book. But you're sure to know someone who does. Buy it as a gift. (October 2006)

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