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Common courtesy and how to use it

PUBLISHED: 09:15 25 March 2019 | UPDATED: 09:15 25 March 2019

The answer is to wear a name tag - it saves embarrassment when you forget who you are. Picture: JAMES HAYWARD

The answer is to wear a name tag - it saves embarrassment when you forget who you are. Picture: JAMES HAYWARD

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Speak when you're spoken to; mind your Ps and Qs; don't offer a flabby handshake - are these still good manners or have we moved on?

We have just sailed past Common Courtesy Day and I didn’t notice.

Courtesy is described as refined behaviour or respect for others and common? Well, step up Lynne Mortimer!

These days I am never quite sure where common courtesy ends and simple rudeness begins. We had very strict rules when I was at school (way back in the last century).

At my all girls’ grammar school, we had a door monitor (voted for by the whole form) whose role in life was to watch out for the next teacher and open the door. This was also, of course, an early warning system.

“She’s coming!” the door monitor would hiss and we would step down from our desks or chairs and arrange ourselves neatly in the guise of obedient pupils hungry to find out more about the enclosure acts of the 18th century.

When the door was opened, the teacher would glide in. We would stand, respectfully.

“Good morning, girls.”

“Good morning Miss Carter,” we sprechgesang in unison.

Allegedly, Miss Carter did not like the smell of mint so we all made sure to suck a Trebor extra-strong mint before she arrived. We were not terribly civilised, even if we did have a nodding acquaintance with the common courtesies.

Common courtesy can be as easy as saying “please” and “thank you”. But even this is less common these days, although recently a motorist winked his rear lights at me when I let him into a queue of traffic. This was my first wink. Usually I get a flash... of rear lights, that is.

Some accuse the younger generations of lacking manners but I there are older people who barge through shop doors ahead of me and never say “excuse me” or “thank you”. Quite often I get knocked by people’s shopping bags and rarely get a “sorry”. I suppose you need to be a bit careful about admitting liability, though (#insuranceclaim).

I have always enjoyed writing thank you letters... some might say inflicting because I do go on a bit. But it is a common courtesy.

There are all sorts of politenesses associated with eating out. Does anyone else wonder if Masterchef judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace ever get to eat hot food? I mention this because one of the elements of etiquette is to wait until everyone has been served their food before eating. If there are a large number of diners, this can be problematic if you are the first person to get food and most people are still waiting, they will inevitably encourage you to start without them: “Don’t wait for us, your food will get cold.” Now what? Do you:

(a) Pick up your knife and fork and tuck in? or

(b) Do a John-and-Gregg and eat your food cold? or

(c) Sit holding your knife and fork in readiness so that you can start eating the instant the last person gets their meal?

Good manners would dictate that you eat cold food... I tend to wobble between all three − maybe pick up a chip with my fingers and eat it or test how efficient my fork is by lining up the first mouthful, ready to go.

Another increasingly testing situation, I find, is introducing people. At any function, if you are with two people who do not know each other, it is incumbent on you to introduce them. Unfortunately, this requires you to know both names and that is not a given.

I have found the best way to approach this mind scramble is to own up... or hide. Forgetting names is covered in Debrett’s, the ultimate etiquette guide. It advises: “If you dry up and suddenly cannot remember someone’s name and are with two people who are clearly expecting you to make the introduction, the best thing is to act swiftly and blame yourself – perhaps make a charmingly self-deprecating remark about your failing memory.”

It does not say what this remark might be but I am of the opinion everyone should wear a name badge... with the exception of top royalty.

For more formal occasions Debrett’s is unsurpassed but modern life sometimes requires new solutions. For example what is the etiquette of two people walking towards one another while texting? Do they go left or right to avoid collision?

And, if you reply to a stranger’s question and then realise they are actually talking on the phone via some sort of ear attachment, who should apologise? Them for misleading you, or you for being so egotistical that you assume everyone wants to talk to you?

Is it okay to take up a whole table in the coffee shop because you’re on your laptop? And, if you are so engaged, is it okay to make one latte last two hours?

What is the most courteous way to try on flip-flops in M&S? With or without socks?

Is it still all right to tell people how nice they look or is that inappropriate now? Debrett’s says go for it. “It is fine to pay people compliments but very personal remarks, which could refer to weight or health issues, are best avoided.”

And, I suppose, it is not polite to stare at the huge spot on their great big nose either.

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