Aficionados of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels will be aware that black tie (tuxedo for our American cousins) was considered for most of the twentieth century to be informal evening wear, whereas white tie was formal evening wear. For those unfamiliar with these stories, start with The Code of the Woosters and you can thank me later. To consider a garment which one might wear a handful of times a year as informal, and something which one might not even own or ever wear as formal, takes a great leap of contemporary imagination.
Informality is the order of our post-modern lives. From the way we dress to the way we talk, social distinctions have broken down, and everyone feels comfortable with each other. Some people do, that is, but most just flounder. It would take another great leap of contemporary imagination, not to mention ignorance of data and polling, to say society is growing happier. Deconstruction, that postmodernist obsession, is actually a breaking down of tradition. As any Tolkien reader will tell you, he who breaks something to find out how it works has lost the path of wisdom. True, formal manners can tend towards stiffness and a lack of interest in others, but that is a bug, not a feature. Formal manners create the atmosphere for positive human interaction. The bad reformer, the postmodernist, has spoken and said, “I see no need for this.”
Many manifestations of “formal manners” exist, but the art of the introduction remains one of the most practically relevant to everyday life. A well-worn comedy trope is the “What’s her name again?” scenario. Because of the postmodern tendency to either refrain from introduction, or simply say to a group, “This is Joe,” we can spend years in a grey zone of “I sort of know you so I will smile sheepishly as I walk past.” The great Debrett’s Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners (1999) makes an ideal introduction clear. Juniors should be introduced to seniors and men to women; introductions should be made with useful details to help conversation (“Lucy has just come back from Scotland, near where you lived”). We should give a handshake of appropriate firmness with a smile and eye contact. The rarer this becomes, the messier our interactions and the more generic our conversation.
All this lends superficiality to social interactions and an even greater divide between the socially over-confident and everyone else, in what today might be called “gregarious privilege.” There is something paradoxically democratic in making sure that everyone is introduced formally and treated with respect. Kevin Williamson, in his exploration of the white underclass in America, Big White Ghetto, discusses how children in rural parts of the country are taught to have immaculate manners—not in deference, but in what Williamson calls “perfectly republican manners.” This may be why we in Britain are surprised when an American calls a waiter “sir” or “ma’am.” Those appellations, to us, are words for military officers, schoolteachers, and royalty. While formal manners work well in hierarchical situations, which do and will continue to exist, there is something democratic about having the same (high) expectations for everyone. Otherwise, we fall into what Michael Gove rightly called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
When people are prepared to meet the British sovereign, they are told exactly how to address him (“Your Majesty,” the first time, and “Sir” after that, since you asked). This is not to establish rank (that is already blindingly obvious), but to make what might be an awkward experience as comfortable as possible. As a human race, we like knowing what we can and cannot do. Today we are so worried about implying hierarchy, or even difference between people, that we have given up trying to lubricate social interaction by giving people reliable expectations. It is like playing a sport without a referee. That is not to say that the referee will always be right, or that the rules won’t change, or even that the referee might not nuance the rules (anyone who has refereed children’s sport can attest to the necessity of this). The referee, however, must be there to ensure fair play and, in social interactions, inclusion. While we cannot and should not guarantee an easy and free flowing social life for everyone, we can create baseline expectations to give everyone a chance.
None of this means we should bring back Victoriana such as calling cards or degrees of mourning, but merely that we should look to the past to solve modern problems (or, as it is sometimes called, be conservative). We look to inclusion as an ideal; for instance, we particularly and rightly want to include the neurodiverse who, like many people, thrive with order and clarity. Inclusion should not count only when it is (politically) convenient.
As ever, it is in order that we find our liberty.