A new book of manners: we need it in these changing times

2014-07-31 00:00

WHEN I was a boy, we were taught the correct beginnings and endings to letters. There were even exams on the topic. “Write a letter to your grandmother thanking her for the jigsaw puzzle she sent you for your birthday.” Piece of cake! Three marks for the correct beginning, three marks for the correct ending, four marks for the content provided your punctuation was okay. A thank you letter to Grandmother for a birthday present should begin “Dear Grandmother”, the content should thank her and mention that the weather at present was fine, and the end should be “With fond love from your grandson Edward”. Ten out of 10 marks, no problem. A letter to a friend should begin “Dear Fred” and end “Yours sincerely, Ted”. A business letter should begin “Dear Mr Smith” and end “Yours faithfully, Edward Brown”.

In the era of the Internet, nobody writes letters anymore. But just as I was taught, I write e-mails in the same way. “Dear Mr Thompson”, I begin, and end “Yours faithfully, Ronald Nicolson”. To my surprise, people whom I have never met before and to whom I have certainly not given permission to use my first name, assume the familiarity of old friends. “Hi Ron”, they reply, and end with an emoticon . I seem now to be intimate friends with everyone, from the lady in the municipal office whom I e-mailed with a query, to the liaison officer in the American office of Amazon answering an e-mail about a book.

It’s not just letters and e-mails. It’s meetings in person too. We were taught that on meeting a male acquaintance, the correct approach was to extend your right hand, shake his hand and say: “How d’you do”. His reply should not be to tell me of his medical condition, but simply to say “How d’you do” back. On meeting a lady, one tipped one’s hat with the same words but with no physical contact.

It’s difficult these days to know what’s expected. One has to make a lightning judgment on background and culture. One male friend, a would-be Francophile, insists on a kiss on the cheek — not just one cheek but both. But which cheek first, the right or the left? Offering the wrong side first could lead to embarrassment; perhaps by mistake a kiss on the mouth, which might be misunderstood between gentlemen. If the person whom I meet is a Zulu, will he expect a double handshake? Or perhaps he is a Yorkshireman, in which case a casual “Eyup” and wave of a finger will do. Robert Crampton, meditating in The Times on this modern dilemma, says that for his friends in Hull, a millimetric dip of the chin is sufficient. Warm-hearted southerners on the other hand expect a hug — but should it be with two arms, or just a right-handed grip of the shoulder, with the left hand clapping the opposite shoulder. And for how long should a hug last? Three seconds seems about right, with a couple of pats on the back to signify disengagement. Less than three seconds might be seen as standoffish, longer might be taken the wrong way.

Meeting a lady is even more fraught with potential embarrassment. A handshake seems too masculine. Is a hug expected? But hugs involve contact with the bosom, unless one tucks one’s midriff away in an unnatural curve. Will pressure on the bosom not be construed as harrassment? And how to end the hug? Pats on the back might seem paternalistic. Perhaps a kiss? But on the cheek or on the mouth? Supposing I aim for the mouth but she expects a peck on the cheek? Or I aim for the cheek and she ends up kissing my ear — will I have to marry her after such undue familiarity?

We need a new book on the correct etiquette of greetings. There will be geographic distinctions. A gentleman being introduced to another gentleman in Pietermaritzburg will merely smile shyly and say “Pleased t’meet you”. Whereas in Boksburg, he will seize the hand of his new friend in a bone-shaking grip and say “Howzit, bru”. Of course, in Cape Town it will be a hug and possibly even a full-on grope.

There will be age distinctions too. On meeting a lady of mature years, a gentleman will kiss her on the mouth without fear of misunderstanding. Meeting a younger woman may require a decision. You might try the hug and consequential squeeze of the bosom if you think you can get away with it. But if her husband is around a mere tip of the hat might be more advisable.

I think there’s a potential gold mine here for a book on the topic. We all need guidance in these uncharted waters.

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic and an Anglican priest.

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