Masks are a matter of manners, says Gove. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

July 22, 2020   7 mins

A few months ago a conversation with my son lodged in my memory. I was putting on a tie, which is itself an unusual event, since I generally only wear one if I’m meeting with — trigger warning for workplace jargon — “external stakeholders”. Having asked what a tie was, and why I was putting one on, his next question — displaying that wonderful childish blend of naivete, persistence and perceptiveness — was “what will happen if you don’t wear a tie to your meeting?”

It’s a reasonable question, on the face of it. Why should anyone listen more carefully or be better-disposed to me because I took a couple of minutes out of my morning to fasten the top button of my shirt and secure a length of cotton or silk round my neck? Why don’t we just relax and show up in T-shirts and flip-flops? After all, the argument goes, we’re all just shaved monkeys underneath, and it’s the ideas in our heads and the goodness in our hearts that matter.

I’m not sure this quite settles the matter. As I said to my son, albeit not quite in these words, taking time to make yourself smart is a signal that you are going to take someone seriously. It’s a gesture of respect, an indication that you are treating this encounter with the weight it deserves.

I’d make a similar defence of manners. Michael Gove ruffled a few feathers last week when he stated that, given the coronavirus situation, wearing a face mask while shopping was “basic good manners”. It struck me that it’s quite unusual to hear senior politicians talking sincerely about the importance of manners and politeness.

Like formal dress, manners — understood in the broad sense, as shared codes for personal conduct, common expectations of how one should react and behave in particular situations — are often derided by a certain kind of pseudo-sophisticated person. Why bother with the artifice? Aren’t manners simply hypocrisy, encouraging us to conceal our real feelings and thus stifling our authentic selves? Wouldn’t it be healthier if we said what we thought, so everyone knew where they stood?

This latter question arises from what the writer-doctor Theodore Dalrymple calls “the hydraulic theory of human behaviour”, where repression, so-called, is seen as very dangerous because it will eventually result in a great uncontrolled outburst of pent-up emotion, and prevents us from showing our true self, that is to say our most strongly-felt impulses. Much healthier, in this view, to let it at all hang out and not take the risk of leaving a thought or feeling unexpressed.

But this comes at the matter from the wrong direction. The sceptical position on manners suggests that we shouldn’t care about mere forms of speech, as what matters is substance. On the contrary, being careful to put others at ease, to show them that you consider them an equal, and that you value their time, is deeply substantial.

To say “please” and “thank you” to someone, to listen carefully to them, to not impose on them your noise or the odour of your food or the obscenity on your T-shirt, is not mere prissiness. It is an act of humility and kindness. It is a way of making clear that you prioritise their comfort over your own convenience or your own self-expression.

Taking your litter home, being quiet on public transport, and friendly and considerate to people who serve you in shops, are never going to be lauded in the history books, but they do contribute massively to the public good. They help people relax and find contentment and peace. They help others feel at home in the world. They treat the world as if it is genuinely a shared place, where we must take into account the needs of others, rather than one  dominated by the loudest and strongest and least considerate.

Manners can have another role. They are part of how we distinguish between the different roles which we play in public life, and between our public roles and our private lives.

A good example of this can be found in the final episode of the television show Band of Brothers. Quite by chance, the main character Dick Winters encounters his old adversary Captain Sobel. As a major, Winters now outranks Sobel, but when he was a lowly second lieutenant in basic training Sobel, his commanding officer, was extremely unpleasant to him; a strong antagonism exists between them, not helped by the fact that by this point Winters has proved himself a brave, effective and popular leader of men and Sobel has been prevented from going into combat. As they pass, Sobel does not salute Winters, as he ought to do, and Winters rebukes him: “We salute the rank, not the man”.

The point here is that sophisticated human societies and organisations, such as armies, cannot function without the willingness to separate the private individual from his or her public role, and without a clear conception that there are certain behaviours, attitudes and demeanours befitting a public role regardless of what the individual in that role might believe or prefer.

When I call a judge “Your Honour” or an MP refers to an opponent as the Right Honourable Member, this is not a judgment about the personal virtues of the person addressed — it is a sign of respect for the role itself. A judge is the representative of the Crown and of the law. A Member of Parliament fills an ancient role in the British constitution. A policeman or a doctor or a teacher are entitled to our deference to their professional expertise not because all police officers or doctors or teachers are especially admirable people in private life but because that particular profession is a creditable vocation, and because that role in society must be treated with respect.

The formal dress and unusual patterns of speech associated with particular positions help to reinforce this distinction, and the broader point that the office is larger and more significant than any particular person who holds it. Some people chafe against this — differing attitudes to the interplay between individuals’ private and public roles are both cause and effect of political difference.

One thinks of John Bercow, former Speaker of the House of Commons. During his decade in the role he shed almost all the last vestiges of traditional dress, while simultaneously (and not coincidentally) thrusting himself and his own views into the forefront of political debate in a way that rode roughshod over the numerous conventions and traditions governing the neutrality of the Speaker.

We might equally consider the case of the UK Supreme Court, whose judges do not wear formal court dress. When the UKSC handed down its enormously controversial judgment on last September’s prorogation, the President Lady Hale was wearing a large spider-shaped brooch, which subsequently became a symbol of opposition to the Tory government. It cannot be healthy for a free law-governed society if figures such as judges, whose job is to interpret the law without fear or favour, become rallying points for one side of a partisan divide, and such an outcome could easily have been avoided by having the members of our highest court wear sombre formal clothes without individual accoutrements.

If proper dress is worn, the individual becomes more clearly subsumed in the role. The same is true with regard to the forms of words used in civic and religious ceremonies; they constantly remind us the focus of what is going on is not the individuals currently present, but something greater, more enduring and more important.

I wonder whether some of the modern antipathy to cultivating good manners is that they are generally a quiet and unshowy form of virtue. It’s difficult to post on social media about how impressive your manners are, because they so often consist of what you don’t say, what you don’t do, and of small gestures and minor sacrifices known only to yourself. Observing socially beneficial taboos can feel like ploughing a lonely furrow, but it is worth it.

For one thing, an enormous amount of great art has been generated by the need to approach certain matters obliquely or euphemistically. Much classic love poetry is of this kind; or consider the books of Jane Austen, where so much of the drama and humour arises from the gap — inevitable in a world of numerous taboos — between what is said and what is meant, between the things that characters want to do and the things that they must do. Consider even film noir, where stars like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall electrified the screen with sexual tension. Filmmakers were so limited in what they could show that they had to find all sorts of clever ways to portray attraction and generate chemistry between their leads.

I don’t doubt that there are downsides for societies that become excessively or obsessively focused on correct form and external proprieties. But it is worth noting that even apparently restrictive codes of behaviour can have unexpected benefits. Take, for instance, a workplace that insists on smart business clothing every day. On a superficial level, this is exclusionary. What about people who don’t want to dress that way for whatever reason?

Equally, however, it is a fair, explicit and visible statement by an organisation of what constitutes appropriate and professional behaviour. It is arguably much more egalitarian than the realistic alternative, where all sorts of dress are allowed and so assessments of professionalism are based instead on individuals’ knowledge of implicit and invisible norms and codes of behaviour and language, knowledge that may only be available to people from certain backgrounds. It’s better to have strict but clear open rules than strict and opaque secret rules.

It’s also worth thinking about the ways in which social taboos, even when resented, can benefit individuals. In the film Brief Encounter, for instance, the keenly-felt and strongly-enforced expectation of decent behaviour helps to stop the lead characters from making the terrible mistake of running away together, and the lesser but still potentially serious one of consummating their relationship.

Obviously Brief Encounter is fiction, but it is a very good illustration of how social pressure to conform to certain behavioural patterns can help to save you from yourself — and save other people from the consequences of selfish or reckless behaviour. Indeed, one general problem for defenders of social conservatism is that so many of the benefits of our worldview are effectively invisible, because they are things that don’t happen.

A significant political objection arises here, one which motivates many critics of manners. To follow social norms is to accept, at least to some extent, the authority of society over the individual. Implicit in the very concept of manners is the admission that how you present yourself to the world matters, that you cannot simply write off other people’s impressions of your behaviour and of the way you present yourself in the world. It is easy to see how this might be unpalatable for a generation of individualists, who view freedom as synonymous with self-actualisation and to whom no unchosen obligation can possibly be truly binding.

Nevertheless, the discipline of manners is worth the effort. It is good to develop the habit of not treating your moods, preferences and impulses as cosmic imperatives which cannot be challenged or gainsaid. For me to keep my feelings to myself is a decision not to treat the world merely as a stage for my own personal drama. It is a blow against the mentality where everyone else is a supporting character in the Story Of Me. And in the age of social media, that doesn’t sound so bad.

Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.