Monday, 22 February 2016

The Polite Approach by Moira Redmond

Where do we go from here?

The Polite Approach is an etiquette book written in the 80s by Moira Redmond, of the blog Clothes in Books. Have things changed since then? In some ways yes, in others, not much. It is an easy read, in a humorous style.
Nobody really needs to know how to address a bishop in a telegram - if they ever did. Her best advice is about conversation (see under "personal security and privacy"). "If someone asks you questions you are not obliged to answer" - questions like "Are you pregnant yet?" Her recommendation? "Looking very shocked and asking 'I can't believe you asked me that!'"

And don't dish out medical disinformation, or information about others' ailments that they didn't volunteer ("She can't eat cheese because..."). Don't live others' lives for them (unless, in my opinion, they are being conned by a professional).

"Anyone who laughs at you or sneers, or makes assumptions about you based solely on your name, accent or income is being very impolite, and is someone you need not bother with." Unless you sound posh, she says, in which people will assume you're rich, and this will make you popular. (In some circles! In others, it will make you very UNpopular, and the butt of people's jokes. Especially in the lefty 80s.)

One thing that really has changed is that we talk on the telephone far less. She reminded me how ghastly it was when people rang who hadn't even "got a first sentence ready". (So much for spontaneity, which was much praised at the time.) The people who rang when you were sleeping after a night shift - and told you off for being asleep at that hour. If you used a friend's phone for a long-distance call you were supposed to estimate the cost and reimburse them (I remember having to do this in a shared house, writing down all phone calls in a book... Did long-distance calls really cost that much?).

"You shouldn't be asked to conduct remote control conversations through the bathroom door." And something else I don't miss: the people who rang and asked you what you'd been doing when the phone rang. Why did it take you so long to answer? And then they monologued for two hours. People who phoned at work wanting a very personal discussion ("Oh, but I thought you had your own office!").

Answering machines had just come in: "People get frightfully worked up about these useful objects. Half the world thinks they're an abomination and not only refuse to use them but see it as an insult to be asked. The other half... are infuriated by people who won't leave a message." I was enraged by those who left an irritated message, adding their phone number as an afterthought in a rapid, inaudible gabble. I changed my message to say "Please leave a number SLOWLY." I then got sarcastic messages ("Was that slow enough for you?").

Social kissing was relatively new: "It has undoubtedly become an accepted social gesture... despite some people's horror and sneers..." Kissing, answering machines – wait till someone invents that frightful Facebook!

Redmond is helpful on dating, especially on the initial fiction that you are going to a movie because you want to see the latest blockbuster or art house product, and going for a meal because you're hungry or you've never tried Estonian cuisine... But then we come to "staying the night".

"If you wish to go home together that is not a question of etiquette, and you are on your own." Oh, Moira, that's just when we NEED etiquette! Back then night buses were few and we couldn't afford taxis. You leave the restaurant, after no previous discussion, no lingering looks or handholding (probably politically incorrect in the 80s) – does one of you say "Your place or mine?" Or should the woman, instead of saying brightly "Well, that was lovely - I must rush or I'll miss the last tube!" hover wordlessly while gazing into the bloke's eyes? Or should she say, "Well, what happens now?" Any suggestions gratefully received.


  1. thank you! what a long time ago it seems..all that phone business, as you say, and everyone terribly exercised by how to write a Xmas card envelope to a couple with different names. And even then, no-one wrote enough thank you notes to make everyone else happy...

  2. And the people who thought it was rude to come straight to the point, and waffled for half an hour first... Have you noticed phone conversations have become as terse as texts? Thank goodness!

  3. Yes indeed. Also, going back to dating etiquette: I had many disagreements with the lovely but terrifically old-fashioned publishers, and one was about my saying that 'young man sees young woman safely home' was all very well when you lived in the same village, but in London singles life, a man who accompanied a woman back to her home at the opposite end of the city would have had his expectations raised...