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Etiquette: a very British art

This week saw a new documentary about life at Tatler magazine – one of the most striking things we learnt watching it is that all staff at the title are given a copy of Debrett’s Guide to Etiquette when they start.

Which got me thinking about manners in the modern age…

In a digital age, you might be forgiven for thinking that etiquette is dead. Certainly not, says Tatler magazine – the focus of a new TV documentary, Posh People, which follows the outrageous exploits of the upper class – where all new recruits are given a copy of the Debrett’s Guide to Etiquette.

In the first episode we learnt, from Tatler newbie Matthew Bell, that the best way to eat a pear is with a spoon; how to navigate the social minefield of public kissing, aka the new handshake (FYI – very slight contact is best, with no sound effects or salvia needed); and editor Kate Reardon’s personal favourite Debrett’s rule: a gentleman is never rude unintentionally.

“At first I thought it was a joke,” said Bell, “but I’m thrilled to be working somewhere that expects this of their staff,” he said, referring to the weighty tome on politeness and appropriate behaviour in social life.

“Although some of the information might be a bit arcane, mostly the Debrett’s Guide is just basic good manners – don’t be late, always say thank you, always be respectful of other people and the effort they have gone to, to entertain you,” explains Tatler’s Deputy Editor Gavanndra Hodge.

“Being polite, saying thank you, listening when someone else talks are especially important in a digital age, we are doing things at such speed, and the computer interface makes it really easy to forget there are real people on the other side of it, so an important rule is never say anything online that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.”

Indeed modern technology is one of the biggest challenges to etiquette. In an infamous case last year, one cashier at Sainsbury’s politely refused to serve 26-year-old Jo Clarke from Crayford until she finished her mobile phone conversation. While Sainsbury’s apologised to the rude customer and admonished the staff member for poor customer service, they were later left embarrassed by the backlash from the public at the absurdity of condoning such shockingly bad manners. Public sympathy lay with the cashier, not the customer.

Social media brings with it an array of dilemnas: is it okay to ask for selfies? If having your mobile phone on the dinner table is rude, how do you instagram everything you eat without looking impolite?

In a case of thoroughly modern manners Nigella Lawson tweeted her apologies last month for NOT posting photos of everything that she ate at a restaurant – ten years ago polite society wouldn’t dream of photographing their food, let alone using their phone to tweet about it. Now, it is the new normal. In fact, it is so expected that we feel compelled to apologise if we don’t do it.

As for selfies, while I still cringe with embarrassment about the thought if asking for one, spare a thought for today’s celebrity who are so narcissistic that it would, in fact, be rude not to ask for a snap. So much so that Russell Brand practically forced one journalist, Lucy Kellaway from the FT, who was interviewing him into having a selfie taken with him (she didn’t even ask for one).

Over at Tatler, other new social scenarios to be deciphered include internet dating and modern romance – “we have declared that this is now okay,” Hodge informs me, “but if you’re thinking of having a threesome at a country house weekend it is very bad manners not to invite the host to join in.”

And as for instagram, smug posts are the height of rudeness. “We did pronounce that you shouldn’t post pictures of a green juice or shots of you and your pals on your private jet,” says Hodge. Well, yes, how vulgar?

So if you ever find yourself drinking a kale and celery smoothie on your private jet, think twice before you reach for your phone.


This feature appeared in Metro on 27 November – to see the newspaper article visit




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