If you believe the lurid headlines, the grumpy columnists and the ‘Disgruntleds of Tunbridge Wells’, you will by now be convinced we have become a nation of ASBO-wielding, foul-mouthed louts and hooligans.
In my recent research on manners, I have found that, perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority of people in this country are still remarkably well behaved. There is strong evidence to suggest that about 90 per cent of people behave honourably and politely about 90 per cent of the time. That still leaves the 10 per cent who misbehave – but they have always been there: we just notice them more now. The media, increasingly competitive and desperate for headline-grabbing ‘scare’ stories, constantly draw our attention to them. And because we’re British, we love an excuse for a good moan.
Moaning is an excellent antidote to our social inhibitions; it’s a highly effective facilitator of social interaction and bonding. Contrary to popular opinion, however, my findings indicate that most of us are still queuing politely, letting each other pass in doorways and not complaining about bad food or poor service (or at least not complaining to the waiter – we just moan bitterly to each other). In my ‘bumping experiments’, I found that 80 per cent of English people still say ‘sorry’ when you bump into them, even when the collision is clearly your fault. Europeans are highly amused by our shock-horror headlines. Yet we remain stubbornly determined to believe that our country is going to the dogs.
I have identified this ‘Eeyorishness’ as one of the defining characteristics of Britishness. It is the mindset exemplified by our national catchphrase – ‘Typical!’ – our chronic pessimism, and our assumption that it is in the nature of things to go wrong and be disappointing. We get a perverse satisfaction from seeing our gloomy predictions fulfilled: it makes us feel smugly omniscient. In fact, if one judges the strength of a rule by the degree of outrage provoked when that rule is broken, then bad manners have, if anything, become less acceptable. Courtesy remains one of our core values – a crucial one, if you think about it, for inhabitants of a small, overcrowded island.