An English person says “sorry” on average eight times each day. This and other fascinating observations on the manners of the English were shared with me at the Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday 5 October 2013.
Linguist and historian Henry Hitchings, who latest book Sorry! The English and their Manners was published earlier this year, spent and hour telling the gathered crowd about his research into manners and sharing humorous anecdotes of his personal experience of bad manners.
Henry told us about how manners grew out of a need to control social situations, so that people could sit around a dinner table and not fear getting stabbed by the sharp knifes being used. Indeed the dinner table has been the centre of manners and etiquette since. Manners developed further with the middle classes in the nineteenth century. The overriding anxiety of getting things wrong, aspirations towards upper class and a desire to separate from the working class moved it on further.
National stereotypes were also discussed, with the English perceived as extremely rude and polite in equal measures. The increasingly multiculturalness of England also highlights the customs, for example saying thank you repeated is a way of acknowledging action, but for other nationalities the frequent use devalues the person to whom you are thankful.
It was a really interesting talk that made me question the sources of my own behaviour and how it can affect others. It also made me look towards current and future conventions that means we can all rub along politely in our increasingly overcrowded cities, from how we should sign off emails to the polite way to use your mobile phone when in company.