The first of the year, when many are trying out new resolutions, is a wonderful time to bring up the subject of manners, those rules that govern social interaction. British author Henry Hitchings does so in his new book Sorry! The English and Their Manners. Not an etiquette book, Sorry! is a history of English social behavior that also has many references to manners in a certain former British colony on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean.
After reminding us of how offended many English tennis fans were by John McEnroe's antics at Wimbledon in 1977, Hitchings takes us back to Medieval times to examine behavior at palaces and in villages of England. Noting that the word "courtesy" is derived from "court," he describes the code of conduct required of the assembly in the palace. From there he works his way up to the present when we puzzle over proper behavior on the Internet.
Throughout Hitchings is entertaining but at the same time serious. Behind every story is a question about the intent of the rules. The driving quest is to discovery why we encourage use of manners. Do we want to foster a fair and pleasant society? Do we just want to get along with others? Do we want to manipulate others?
Do we need manners just to keep us from killing each other?
Some reviews suggested this would be of interest to viewers of Downton Abbey, and I would agree, but I also want to emphasize that Hitchings' book is not about ruling class control of working class. It is broader and of interest to anyone who every talks to anyone else. I urge many more public libraries to add this book.
Hitchings, Henry. Sorry! The English and Their Manners. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. 392p. ISBN 9780374266752.