15 Apr 2022

Do you need to brush up on your manners?

The last two years have seen an enforced change in British behaviour. We have been intermittently confined to our homes and forbidden, or actively discouraged, from socialising with our fellow human beings. We have been advised to ‘keep our distance’. So it is scarcely surprising that, while the lifting of restrictions has propelled us into the social world again and we are once again enjoying rubbing shoulders with other people, our public manners have got a bit rusty.

We’ve become so used to isolation and individualism that our finely tuned social antennae, which pick up on the myriad signals sent out by other people, are not functioning as well as they should be. We’ve forgotten how to comport ourselves in shared social spaces, as instances of loud, boisterous, boorish and oblivious behaviour testify. So here are a few reminders:

Headphones On

People seem to have become increasingly disinhibited about mobile phone use. For many years now we have been forced to listen to one-sided conversations that are shockingly intimate. Now we find ourselves listening to full-disclosure two-sided conversations, as people are switching their phones on to speaker or conducting video calls in public spaces. This tendency shows a troubling disregard for social boundaries and a baffling disdain for other people. It may be the result of occupying our own space for so much of the last two years, and failing to make the necessary adjustments. But it is imperative that you are aware of people around you when using mobile phones.

This admonition also applies to the increasing numbers of people who watch videos or play games on their mobiles without headphones when they are out and about, most notably on public transport. While you are not revealing your deepest secrets to strangers, you are invading their space with noise pollution. Always use headphones or ear buds to minimise noise.

Sharing Space

During the pandemic we naturally spaced ourselves out on buses and trains, doing our best to create our own cordon sanitaire. This tendency was greatly facilitated by the comparative emptiness of public transport. But now most people have gone back to work (for some of the week at least) and transport is filling up. It is therefore unacceptable to mark out your own space by dumping bags on adjacent seats, especially if you do not remove them when you see people standing. You may feel at risk of infection from your fellow-travellers, but you have made the decision to use public transport and you must accept the consequences. That means stowing bags away and occupying only one seat. People should never be forced to ask you to move your bags.

Remember that a train is a public space and you’re not at home, putting your feet up on the sofa. Keep your feet on the ground, not on the opposite seat. Resist eating extremely smelly fried food that will suffuse the whole carriage – you don’t want to nauseate your neighbours…

Eating Out

Everyone has been overjoyed to be socialising in restaurants and pubs again, and convivial gatherings are the order of the day. But don’t let your excitement carry you away. Remember that you are sharing a public space with fellow-diners and if your group gets really raucous, with deafening chatter and baying laughter, you’re likely to be disturbing people at nearby tables, who won’t be able to enjoy their own conversation.

Flushed with wine and good fellowship, it’s very easy to let your children do their own thing when eating out. This might involve wandering around the restaurant, tripping up waiters and accosting strangers, or playing rambunctious and noisy games near diners in the pub garden. Of course, you want them to have fun too, but it really is imperative that you keep an eye on feral children and ensure that they’re not spoiling other people’s enjoyment.

That said, nobody should expect eating out in restaurants and pubs to be a serene experience of cathedral-like calm. You may have got used to the peace and solitude of your own home, but eating out is a communal experience and there’s no point going out if you’re not prepared to show some tolerance towards other people and their children. If people are making an obvious effort to control and marshal recalcitrant children, acknowledge their efforts with a smile – giving harassed parents the evil eye is just going to add to their stress levels.

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