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I Followed Debrett's British Etiquette Rules For A Week And Got Strange Looks

18:47Ciaran McCormick

“A man should stand up to greet a woman when she enters the room for the first time”. Right then, I realised it was going to be a long and difficult week. Recently, I decided to follow a set of etiquette rules for an entire week. I turned to modern British etiquette curated by the experts in social decorum Debrett’s. It was inspired by this video of Stephen Fry welcoming airline passengers to Heathrow. He demonstrated to foreigners the British love of queuing and our bizarre habit of cheering when somebody drops a plate. But I knew there was much more to British etiquette and I wanted to see if I could integrate the rules seamlessly into my life.

If you want to try this experiment too, you could buy their books on the perfect gentleman, how to entertain and their A-Z of Modern Manners.


I must admit that going into the experiment I had a lot of preconceptions about etiquette. They are pretentious rules designed by the upper class to regulate the behaviour of their social circles and prevent poor people getting in. To follow them, you need an unreasonable amount of time and more money than sense. It is the irritating brother of common sense, which most people use as the benchmark to get along with each other.


The rule about having to get up each time a woman enters a room for the first time was the one that haunted me throughout the week. This reminded me of school a little. They warn not to be a jack-in-the-box and repeatedly get up when a woman enters and leaves rooms repeatedly. Yet with this in mind, I still found myself standing a lot. People got quite confused. Some thought I was leaving and walked over to take my seat. This was not a good start to the week and confirmed my thoughts that this might be an awkward experience.


Some of the rules were useful. They summarised many of our British traits, from queuing to complaining and our taboos like money and religion. My daily commute made me wish that everyone else would listen to the advice about not invading my personal space. “If you can feel the warmth of their anxious breath upon your face, then you're standing too close.” It would be a great idea to add this quote to signs on the London Underground. They make some great points about the need to have both intimacy and personal space. I tried to strike up occasional conversation with non-threatening looking strangers and did my best not to pack myself in every available Tube nook.



However, I could not escape the feeling that these were rules designed for a different age. Debrett’s has existed since 1769 and bases most of its rules on customs and traditions dating hundreds of years. Its guide to British etiquette tries to adapt to some modern developments but it feels like they do so begrudgingly. It seems to yearn for a simpler time when gentlemen owned their women and servants and simply had to worry about their status in high society.

It also encourages an uncomfortable stereotype. It highlights sort of mannerisms and affectations that you expect to see on a lazy American cartoon or film. This can be unimportant ways from our obsession with tea and queuing and it can be in other more pernicious ways. For example, it beats a drum throughout that British people are unemotional and difficult to get along with.



“The British are trained from an early age to be self-contained and reserved. Effusive displays of emotion are seen as false, self-promotion is seen as bumptious and boastful, sentimentality is plain embarrassing.” This seems dangerous because it encourages people to repress their emotions. They call people that act over-familiar as a ‘miasma of dread’ which seems like a ridiculous exaggeration from someone to up themselves. We live in a society that fears emotion so much that men have a disproportionate suicide rate.

We also can’t win with Debrett’s guidelines. Even though it discourages emotional displays, it expects you to be really outgoing as well. On shyness, they say that it “is used as a tool by the arrogant or lazy to dodge the need to interact with people”. Ouch. As an introvert, that galls me because I am naturally shy. I can interact with people when I am comfort but when I shy away it is never because of arrogance or laziness.

Overall, the rules are still traditional and class-based. They rely on trying to get by with minimum fuss at the expense of modern and progressive norms. For example, they discourage breastfeeding mothers from doing so in public and tell them they should not assume they have an automatic right to. This is the ridiculous idea that women’s breasts are so sexualised that the rights of people being uncomfortable or distracted are more important than their right to feed their children. The rules made me feel like I lived in a different world. They are obsessed with visiting the royal family, what to wear at Ascot and made my clothes seem dishonourable.

However, throughout the week it was the little things that tripped me up the most. I was ordered to use my knife in my right hand. Normally, I use it in the left and even though every place setting is wrong for me, I get by fine. Trying to use it in the ‘correct’ way arbitrarily handed down from the rules was a constant annoyance. Every meal took longer to eat and I resented my experiment. They even say that it is improper to dunk biscuits into tea, which would annoy my boyfriend, whose tea habit is worthy of a national institution.


I repeatedly failed to say the proper words: “loo or lavatory never toilet; sofa never settee; napkin never serviette; supper never tea; drawing room or sitting room, never lounge or front room.” To me, toilet sounds much classier than loo anyway. I was at the hairdressers and thought this a perfect opportunity to follow their advice about the weather. “In these days of global warming, English people can now enjoy discussing ever more unpredictable weather - blizzards in April, floods in July, and so on. With the weather as a topic, conversation is never going to falter.” Our chat about the weather lasted about a minute before running dry. So that was not a very successful episode.

The most hilarious rule that I tried to follow got some very odd looks indeed. Debrett’s argue that you should never turn your back on a room. You should reverse out of a room so that they don’t remember you by your back. I did not look graceful doing this. Instead, it resembled this classic scene:



After a week, I felt exhausted and sick of some of these etiquette rules. I was pleasantly surprised that they were fairly modern and didn’t rile my feminist convictions by trying to make me into a gentleman who patronises women with ancient chivalry. However, I still believe that they entrench class in our society and try to impose too many absurd rules. My common sense has served me well throughout my life and will continue to do so.


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