Thursday, 24 June 2010

U and non-U

I’ve been on tenterhooks all day today, in emotional bits, wondering whether Andy Murray would bow to the Queen. Now the waiting is finally over and I can relax, I’ve been inspired to cobble together these thoughts on etiquette.

Anxieties about etiquette often respond to specific historical dilemmas. After World War II, middle-class commentators noted the increased incivility of workers who seemed reluctant to return to pre-war standards of class deference, what the writer J.L. Hodson called ‘a mild revolt against society’. A 1957 Times leader pointed to the ‘anger of the middle classes’ at the loss of a common system of manners, and complained that ‘it is nowadays hard to have a relationship with a subordinate which rests on mutual consideration based on acknowledged authority’.

Alan Ross and Nancy Mitford’s famous distinction between ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ in the 1950s addressed the problem of the genteel poor, which meant that the upper classes now had to differentiate themselves linguistically, by saying ‘napkin’ instead of ‘serviette’, and ‘how d’you do?’ instead of ‘pleased to meet you’. The lower orders could be kept in their place with subtle putdowns, such as the use of ‘civil’ to describe the behaviour of non-U people who knew their place (‘The guard was very civil’).

Nowadays, the changing nature of public space creates its own potential frictions. Places like supermarkets, hotels and airports often require no human interaction at all, just a series of anonymous contractual obligations: ‘queue this side’, ‘sign on the dotted line’, ‘key in your ID number’, ‘have your boarding card ready’. We can get through complex manoeuvres in daily life without actually talking to any one around us. But we are endlessly available to absent friends and colleagues through the use of mobiles and pagers. Hence the need for quiet zones on trains, and the silent seething of fellow passengers when we abuse them.

New technologies also generate uncertainty over protocol. In the 1980s, one etiquette expert ruled that it was an unforgivable solecism to hang up on an answering machine, claiming that leaving a message was ‘exactly the same in modern terms, as leaving one’s card with the footman’.

Twitter seems to have its own protocol – about following people who are following you, replying, retweeting, thanking tweeters who’ve retweeted you, etc. I fear I may already have unwittingly stamped over this protocol like a beered-up England fan with a vuvuzela in the Queen’s Enclosure at Ascot.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The true poem is the daily paper.’ – Walt Whitman


  1. You might be interested in the idea of 'Eternal September'

    And Meg Pickard's series of posts about etiquette on Twitter :

    (That's her in slightly grumpy mode... we allow it, she deals with the Guardian commenting community every day, poor love.)

  2. Another interesting little gobbet for a Friday. Of course new technologies create new norms of behaviour and people (especially the British, of whom I am one, so maybe I shoudn't speak) seem to have an ability to make a social statement in almost any context and with very little justification. the interesting thing is that there is clearly a selection bias at work - we read Nancy Mitford's classic U and non U terms and people remember them because to an extent they are still in place today as are other similar ones - what would be interesting would be a survey of social norms that never quite became norms - etiquette that never took off.
    Bon weekend

  3. Thanks both for these comments - and for the links.