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“Part social history, part cultural critique, the book moves humorously from the ancient to the modern with pithy anecdotes and amusing factoids. In the medieval court of Henry II, ‘One shouldn’t attack an enemy while he is defecating, should avoid sharing secrets with one’s wife, and ought to look towards the ceiling when belching.’ . . . This seriously amusing and illuminating book goes a long way toward explaining to Anglophobe, Anglophile, and the just plain puzzled why ‘the average Briton says “Sorry” eight times a day.’” —Publishers Weekly
“Hitchings clearly has fun with his subject(s), both the English themselves and the code of conduct that has evolved since the Middle Ages—when, he notes, someone commodiously counseled that ‘one should not attack an enemy while he is at stool.’ Evolve is a useful term here, since, as Hitchings notes, manners are not static . . . Hitchings’ book . . . [is] a pleasure to read.” —Kirkus
Praise for The Language Wars
“Mr. Hitchings’s trenchant prose is irresistible.” —The Baltimore Sun
“Extraordinary . . . Chock-full of historical and literary references, The Language Wars is a fascinating, eye-opening look at the evolution of the English language.” —The Huffington Post
“Crisply written, amusing, informative, and thought-provoking. Anyone interested in the English language and its history should read it.” —The Sunday Telegraph (London)
“Hitchings has prepared a turducken of language-history entrées. Consuming one layer, we discover another, and another. And we feast.” —The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Thoroughly charming . . . A rich history of English and the shifting rule books for its correctness…Hitchings cautions readers to take care, not in the way of the ‘grumblers, fault-finders, quibblers and mud-slingers,’ but following the example of Orwell, in using language to be clear, to be honest, to connect with each other.” —The Boston Globe
“Hitchings has earned a place at the head table of contemporary linguists.” —The Denver Post
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 that 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." (This would never have happened in America, since our country was brought to her knees by fringed "Achy Breaky Heart" T-shirts two decades ago.) 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 eighteenth-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.
Heather Havrilesky is the author of Disaster Preparedness: A Memoir and writes "Ask Polly" for The Awl.
Reviewer: Heather Havrilesky
The stars’ tennis balls
or, a short introduction from an unusual angle
In 1977 an eighteen-year-old American skipped his high school graduation to play tennis in Europe. Although an amateur, he competed against professionals – thrilling fans and maddening traditionalists with his prickly, passionate attitude. Even to people for whom tennis was of little interest, his behaviour seemed at once scandalous and magnetic. Two decades later a sociologist, E. Digby Baltzell, would assess the player’s impact in his book Sporting Gentlemen. This had had a rather more catchy working title: John McEnroe and the Decline of Civilization.
Tennis mattered a lot to me when I was a child. Each summer I would go square-eyed watching Wimbledon. In the first couple of years that I was able to follow it, I registered McEnroe’s sulky petulance, and registered also how violently it was at odds with the coolness of his great rival, Björn Borg. I liked Borg, the doleful-looking Swede who reputedly slept surrounded by his racquets, and was encouraged in this preference by my parents.
McEnroe was considered a disgrace because he flouted the norms of a sport steeped in tradition, showed no regard for authority, and always insisted that he was right, even when (and partly because) such insistence was guaranteed to be futile. His technique disclosed his angsty nonconformity. In a review of one of the player’s televised matches, Clive James observed that McEnroe gave the impression of ‘serving around the corner of an imaginary building’; his service motion, apparently developed to prevent back pain, seemed consonant with paranoia. Meanwhile his demeanour was ‘as charming as a dead mouse in a loaf of bread’.1 A further source of outrage was McEnroe’s appearance: his air of dishevelment (wild hair, sloppy socks, a mystifying lack of muscle tone) meant that he looked like a dabbler, at a time when tennis was embracing the bland ruthlessness of professional sports management. McEnroe’s manners grated. His defiance stemmed from a hatred of anything that seemed phoney; he suffered not from a lack of sensitivity, but from a tendency to be hypersensitive in situations where he was meant to be stoical.
Borg and McEnroe suggested two distinct ways of experiencing the world, two distinct ways of greeting fortune and misfortune. Borg was the embodiment of restraint and politesse, averting his gaze from his own excellence, whereas McEnroe was the embodiment of … well, of what E. Digby Baltzell considered calling the decline of civilization.
The choice between these two figures and their attitudes was presented to me explicitly. Neither was English, but I saw the drama of their rivalry in an English setting, and it spoke to an English audience. Here were two approaches to life: the mannerly and the unmannerly. One player kept his feelings locked up; the other expressed them continually. One had eliminated all trace of intimacy from his behaviour; the other was forever admitting us to an intimate place we didn’t want to go.
Yet now the choice between Borg and McEnroe feels different: we find McEnroe’s conduct authentic, even courageous, while Borg’s seems that of an android. In his autobiography, Serious, McEnroe writes that ‘Where money and publicity meet, there’s always excitement, but good behaviour is rarely part of the mix. Manners are the operating rules of more stable systems … I thought tennis had had enough of manners. To me, “manners” meant sleeping linesmen at Wimbledon, and bowing and curtsying to rich people with hereditary titles who didn’t pay any taxes.’2
To McEnroe, as to many people, the notion of manners seems old-fashioned and starchy, and it also means something divisive, corrupt, shamefully unquestionable – and quintessentially English. The manners of every society encode a particular view of the world. They can be understood as a system for producing a sense of togetherness or minimizing a sense of not-togetherness. But in the pantheon of national stereotypes, English and manners go together like French and romance or German and efficiency.
In the pages that follow, I examine English manners. I also examine Englishness. It therefore seems appropriate to say something about the words English and British. The distinction between them is one that English people often fail to observe; in the eyes of the Scottish and Welsh, it is much clearer. Britain is a political construct; the Act of Union in 1707 joined England, Wales and Scotland as ‘one united kingdom by the name of Great Britain’. This construct, which blurred traditional divisions, was strengthened by a reaction against all that was encountered overseas. As a political concept, ‘Britain’ has worked, but at root the people of England, like the people of Scotland and Wales, feel that while ‘British’ may be the name for what they are, it is not who they are.
Because I have Welsh and Scottish antecedents as well as English ones, I call myself British. Yet to foreigners I undoubtedly seem deeply English. Some years ago, on a trip to Japan with students from a dozen other countries, I referred to myself as a European and was mocked for doing so by my generally charming companions. As one Belgian member of the group put it, ‘The English really are not Europeans.’ ‘I’m not English,’ I countered. The response was a chorus: ‘Oh yes, you are.’ What did Englishness mean to these citizens of Sweden, Portugal, Austria and Greece? Mainly it consisted of belligerence, xenophobia and crudeness, leavened by a chummy warmth. ‘We like the English,’ said one young woman from Barcelona, ‘and we know you like us. But you’re still, you know, different – the English, he’s partly a friendly person who’s polite and easy, and partly a guy who likes football and beer and is really loud.’ It meant something to my companions to think of me as English, and when I said I was British I was regarded as invoking a technicality.
To speak of English manners, rather than of British ones, is to recognize something visceral. As I investigate this, in the chapters that follow, I also discuss manners in general. I could hardly not, for, as I shall show, the sources of many of our ideas to do with manners are not English at all. Manners are neither an English invention nor a modern one. A global history of the subject would reach back at least as far as the twenty-fifth century BC, when the Egyptian vizier Ptahhotep issued a set of maxims about appropriate behaviour. It would take in the Chinese thinker Confucius, the Roman statesman Cicero, the great compendium of Jewish lore known as the Talmud, and Abu Hamed Mohammad ibn Mohammad al-Ghazali, a scholar who almost 1,000 years ago wrote about adab, the code that provides Muslims with a model of respectfulness. The coverage of medieval Europe might start with Thomasin of Zerklaere, an Italian who produced a didactic poem about manners around 1215. Writing in German, Thomasin offered guidance on matters such as where to look when riding a horse (upwards, rather than at one’s legs), and advised young men not to step on benches and women not to look over their shoulders.3
Guides to manners have not always begun as reactions to bad behaviour – attempts to halt social decline – yet implicit in every such work, and explicit in most of them, is an anxiety about slipping standards or a belief that tighter codes of conduct need defining. Today it is common to remark that the little civilities that make life bearable are vanishing, that people from whom you expect flawless behaviour instead act rudely, that conflict is more common than rapport. We seem to be inundated with stories of degeneracy: politeness is expiring. Thus, for instance, the Daily Mail in April 2008 reported a new study claiming that bad manners were the biggest problem facing society. Behaviours cited as giving especially grave offence included spitting and swearing.4
Complaints of this kind will strike a chord with readers who feel that the present moment is one of unique discourtesy. But here is a snippet from a report published by penal reformers in 1898: ‘The tendencies of modern life incline more and more to ignore, or disparage, social distinctions, which formerly did much to encourage respect … [and it] is frequently asserted, that the manners of children are deteriorating, that the child of today is coarser, more vulgar, less refined, than his parents were.’ Here is the churchman Robert Wallace in 1758, summing up an attitude prevalent among his contemporaries: ‘There being now nothing in our constitution to give due check to our bad manners, their natural consequences must have their full effect, and we run the greatest risk of going to destruction.’5 And here is Baldassare Castiglione in 1528, in a book that would enjoy great popularity among English readers, condemning as an ‘error’ the tendency whereby ‘nearly all praise the past and blame the present, revile our actions and behaviour and everything which they themselves did not do when they were young, and affirm, too, that every good custom and way of life, every virtue and, in short, all things imaginable are always going from bad to worse.’
I hope to avoid the error described by Castiglione, developing a true sense of the past, the present and their relationship. My book’s structure is chronological, but sometimes I cut away from the main narrative to explore a subject such as table manners that belongs to no one historical moment. I have also canvassed the opinions of a few experts in the field – by which I mean complete strangers, people with whom I fell into conversation on the bus or while waiting in a queue. Here, for instance, are the views of Tia and Misha, teenage girls I met at the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. Tia: ‘Manners is just another word for respect. And respect has to be earned.’ Misha: ‘How do you earn manners?’ Tia: ‘You learn them.’ Misha: ‘You said you earn them.’ Tia: ‘Like fuck I did.’ And then to me, Tia: ‘Sorry about this, man.’
Sorry. Lynne Truss says in her 2005 book Talk to the Hand that the word is ‘near extinction’. Although that is not my experience, its force has diminished, and often today it does not express sorrow, penitence or even regret. It can be powerful when incorporated into a sincere apology, but when it stands alone may seem hollow – a punctuation mark, with a weight no greater than a comma, in the everyday discourse of selfishness. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph in September 2011, the average Briton says ‘Sorry’ eight times a day. The very existence of that report is worthy of remark: a lot of the time manners are treated as a minority concern, but they are guaranteed to interest the many readers of conservative newspapers such as the Telegraph and the Mail. It is apt that the Telegraph uses Old Testament terms when noting: ‘That’s 204,536 times in threescore years and ten.’6
The readiness of the English to apologize for something they haven’t done is remarkable, and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologize for what they have done. This puts me in mind of an essential paradox that I have observed: the English are polite, and they are also rude. Extreme rudeness and elaborate politeness both stem from feelings of unease; they are different techniques for twisting one’s way out of discomfiture.
Paradox will come up again and again in this book. A few examples: The English are proud of their stoicism and resilience, though often in practice they are hypochondriacs. ‘Mustn’t grumble,’ the English say straight after grumbling, and in circumstances where complaint is not only justified but necessary. (The stiff upper lip, that fabled image of restrained English fortitude in the face of adversity, seems to be American in origin.) The English advertise their simplicity, yet many of those who do so take pleasure in English culture’s tangled mysteries. Although they like forming committees, even like the idea of sitting on them, they hate committee meetings. The English catchphrase ‘I know my rights’ belies a state of affairs in which legal rights are convoluted, and in which litigation is slow and costly. The very people who display greatest pride in the English past know nothing of their own families before their grandparents.
A final example, before we are borne back into that past: the people who speak most emotionally about the decline of manners, and who rejoice most in the sanctity of their understanding of what English manners are, rarely express any curiosity about the origins of those manners or the authority and rationale on which they rest. But perhaps that isn’t a paradox at all.
Copyright © 2013 by Henry Hitchings