I recently picked up this little book in a charity shop in Headington: Debrett’s A-Z of Modern Manners. It seemed like the sort of thing that any self-respecting Prep School Head should have in his study! It is certainly useful for explaining how to eat asparagus (depends on whether it is hot or cold), how to blow your nose in public (it’s complicated) and how to address members of the Royal Family (again, very complicated).
It is quite a fun read, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of what we would like our children to know about manners. In fact, I fear that it reinforces a very negative view of good manners, namely that they require following a code of practice. The problem with this is that not everyone agrees what this code is so people who don’t know are left feeling inferior and those who do know can become very superior. The result is that a book like Debrett’s A-Z can simply lead us into looking down on people who pass the port the wrong way or who use the wrong salt with their quails’ eggs.
Manners matter at Ashfold. Of course they do. But I try to explain to the children that the heart of good manners is not about following a code, but about thinking about the feelings of other people and doing all that we can to make them feel comfortable. Hosting visitors to the school conscientiously, behaving at mealtimes, saying please and thank you, holding doors open, listening to people when they speak, making eye contact and smiling. These things are self-evidently good manners and we don’t need a guide to tell us this. And they are not about making us look good (although they do), they are about making other people feel valued and respected.
So I am happy to lend anyone my copy of Debrett’s A-Z of Modern Manners. If you’re going to Ascot it is helpful, I suppose. But for everyday good manners, for making other people feel comfortable and valued and respected, we definitely don’t need it.