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Manners and Etiquette

Manners and Etiquette

It is generally believed that the English are more formal than they really are. In fact, in day-to-day contact with each other they are less inclined to formality than the French or the Germans.

Perhaps it is the awesome spectacle of their state occasions that has given rise to the popularly held belief that even husbands and wives call each other by their titles and surnames. In reality, first names are commonly used among colleagues, and the American habit of using these on the telephone even before the names have met is how widespread.

The custom of men deferring to women is now some-what on the wane, thanks to the strenuous efforts of the apostles of political correctness who see it more as condescension than consideration. You will, however, probably still get away with opening a door or giving up a seat for all but the most strident of feminists. But it is no longer de rigueur to jump to your feet when a woman enters the room, whether or not there are enough chairs.

Do Not Touch

However informal they are in their manner or address, when it comes to physical contact, the English are still deeply reserved.

They are not a tactile people. When greeting each other, men will shake hands on a first meeting but probably avoid doing so on subsequent ones. The preferred English handshake is a brief, vigorous affair with no hint of lingering. The cue question, "How do you do?" and the answer "How do you do?" signal the end of the ritual and hands should be crisply withdrawn from contact. Any deviation from the above procedure can cause all sorts of problems and suspicions of freemasonry, or worse.

Women may kiss on one or both cheeks; if they do, the miss-kiss is preferred - the kisser making a kissing gesture with appropriate sound-effects in the air in the general region of the recipient's ear or ears.

Men may kiss women in greeting, but only on the cheek. Trying to get a kiss on both cheeks can be risky as most women only expect the one, do not turn their heads for the second and receive it full frontally, which can result in the worst being feared - i.e. that it was an intentional ploy - an oscillatory rape.

Most Englishmen never hug or (perish the thought) kiss other men. They leave that to football players and foreigners.

In public places, the English make strenuous efforts not to touch strangers even by accident. If such an accident should occur, apologies are fulsome but should never be used as an excuse for further conversation. On crowded public transport where it is sometimes unavoidable, physical contact with a stranger is permitted, but in such circumstances, eye contact should be avoided at all costs.

Intimacy between consenting adults is recognised as involving more touching. But that takes place behind closed doors usually with the lights out. Displays of affection in all relationships are kept to a minimum.

Ps and Qs

English children have their own particular catechism of accepted conduct to learn. The first rule they come across at an early age is "Mind your Ps and Qs". These have nothing to do with waiting politely to use the lavatory. Ps and Qs are short for "Pleases" and "Thank Yous". Supplication, gratitude and, most important of all, apology are central to English social intercourse, which is why English people seem to express them endlessly as if to the hard of hearing.

It is difficult for the foreigner to learn how to wield the small vocabulary necessary, but the starting point is to understand that it is almost impossible linguistically to be over grateful, over apologetic or over polite when it comes to the point. Thus, the English man or woman whose toe you tread on will be "so sorry" presumably for not having had the offending digit amputated earlier. He or she will thank you "so much" when you stop treading on it or, if you do not, ask you to with a routine of pleases and thank yous that would last any other national half a lifetime. It's just the English way.

A lack of profusion in the gratitude or apology department will certainly land anyone in such a situation in the "not very nice" camp from which there is little chance of escape.


Foreigners look with amazement at the English queue. It is not their way of doing things at all. But for the English, queuing is a way of life.

Many still consider that one of the few plus points of the last war was the proliferation of queues. There were queues for everything. People would join one and then ask the person in front what the queue was for.

And that is the secret of English queue-mania. A queue is the one place where it is not considered bad manners to talk to a stranger without being introduced.

Such an enjoyable custom should, to the English way of thinking, commend itself naturally to all peoples. They are amazed when it does not, and do not take kindly to aliens who fail to recognise a queue when they see one ("There is a queue, you know!"), or to join in and play the queue game nicely.

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