And it is a wonderful reminder that so many of our silly skirmishes could be avoided and society infinitely improved if we polished our manners rather than our self-esteem. In truth, many recent arguments could have been better resolved by an etiquette consultant than Twitter at 10 paces.

For instance, the palaver over British footballers who took the knee to honour the Black Lives Matter movement and were booed for it by fans. Perhaps this was racism. But given that a majority of Britons, including 44 per cent of ethnic minorities, believe that the Black Lives Matter movement has increased racial tension in Britain, it is worth considering that the gesture might have been viewed by fans as detrimental imported moral posturing ruining an otherwise unifying national game. Bad manners, in fact, which they then booed.

Off the sports field, 2020 has furnished enough modern dilemmas to keep the advice column of once-fashionable journal The New Yorker publishing at a regular clip. However, it missed the opportunity to discuss Zoom etiquette when staff writer, Jeffrey Toobin, was fired for masturbating on-camera during a staff video conference.

We can only guess, given his explanation that he believed himself to be off camera at the time, that invisible onanism is an approved pastime on those interminable calls. No wonder some people can’t seem to get enough of the blasted things and won’t go back to the office.

Similarly, the debate over preferred pronouns. A reader drew a common misconception to my attention about the controversial psychiatrist Jordan Peterson: it is widely believed that he said he would refuse to use a person’s chosen pronouns.

In fact, he made a more subtle point about etiquette. He would, he said, use preferred pronouns unless doing so forced him to make a political statement. So referring to Caitlyn Jenner as she and her would be a matter of simple politeness, but if she were to decide that her preferred pronouns were Empress/Rightful Ruler of All She Surveys, it would be poor manners on her part and perfectly acceptable for her interlocutor to demure.

It is far from a settled question where “ze” and “hir” sit on this spectrum and whether it’s really the done thing upon meeting a stranger to issue them with extensive instructions, in addition to telling them your name. In my observation, it is admirable when people are able to remember even that. Good manners are reciprocal and require that we moderate our demands at the same time as trying to exceed expectations.

Then there is that all-consuming bin fire, American politics. For the last four years, the US has been a spectacle of terrible manners by people who clearly got too many participation trophies in primary school. The 2016 election was fought between a woman who insulted voters as a “deplorables” and a man who boasted about grabbing pussies.

Unsurprisingly, they are also appalling losers. When Hillary Clinton lost the election, she penned the novelette of self justification What Went Wrong. Her supporters formed “The Resistance”, a vainglorious project to undermine US politics by because they didn’t like the election outcome.

For four years the Democratic Party tried to find cause to impeach President Donald Trump. Finally they settled on a pretext that failed. And yet now they are surprised because the defeated President is chucking a terrific sulk and refusing to accept his lot. If these groups were still children, it would be incumbent on their parents to take them aside for a stern chat about fair play and gracious concession.


In politics like most things, it will be years before history tells us who was right. In the meantime we may as well be charming. The Australian anthem sung with an Indigenous verse was charming and good manners.

Moreover, since the Australian rugby team can’t win on the field, it may as well rack up some wins off it. Good breeding consists, as O’Rourke said, of concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of others. It may also distract from our failings.

Parnell Palme McGuinness is managing director strategy and policy at strategic communications firm Agenda C.

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