Dr Peter Moore: Rigid codes of etiquette still very much in force

Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford - Credit: PA

Dr Peter Moore former Torbay GP:

Mrs Beeton’s famous 1861 'Book of Household Management' is a fascinating insight into mid-Victorian life.

It is not just a recipe book but a guide for young ladies about to get married and becoming the mistress of the house.

I particularly like her advice: “Upon entering the kitchen one should always say 'good morning cook'."

I have a feeling that if I tried that upon entering our kitchen it would not end well.  

But proper etiquette was extremely important. It was also highly exclusive.

There was a complex list of rules for behaviour in polite society.

Most Read

Those who went to the 'right' school and on to university or became an officer in the army or navy had been brought up with the basic rules of etiquette - which cutlery to use when, how to address people of different rank and even how to greet someone.

'Hello old fellow' indicates 'ill breeding' although today my friends might be a little surprised if I greeted them with: "Hello old fellow."

When crossing the pavement a lady should raise her dress with the right hand, a little about the ankle. To raise the dress with both hands is 'vulgar'.

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, the captain says to his daughter when she falls in love with a 'common sailor' that: “at every step he would commit solecisms that society would never pardon.”

This meant that if anyone, however talented, moved up into the middle and upper class he or she would immediately be found out.

Although less rigid, the middle and upper classes continue to have unwritten rules which could make someone from a less privileged background feel awkward.  

In the 1950s, Nancy Mitford embraced the terms 'U' and 'non-U' to determine whether someone was upper class.

There is a list of U and non-U words such as 'sofa' is U and 'settee' is non-u, 'lavatory' or 'loo' is U and 'toilet' is non-u and 'sitting room' is U and 'lounge' is non-U.

It was even suggested that 'wireless' is U and 'radio' non-U although today wireless technology no longer means radio.

It is tempting to believe that we have now moved on from these pedantic rules. But have we?

Admittedly, there are no longer rigid rules about when to use a fish knife, or whether to say 'How do you do' (U) or 'Pleased to meet you' (non-U), but does everyone know and understand all the nuances of the language today around gender and race?

Get that wrong and it is no longer about your social class. You can be branded a racist, transphobe or homophobe. You can even be 'non-platformed', unable to speak at public meetings.

Unless someone has been living on another planet, they would know to avoid the n-word.

The disgusting tweets about our English heroes after the Euro finals were obviously racist and must be called out but was it racist when Benedict Cumberbatch referred to black actors as 'coloured' when he was trying to highlight the racial problems they face.

In the past, the expression 'black' was not acceptable and people were asked to use the word 'coloured'.

Now, due to the offensive way the term 'coloured' was used in America and apartheid South Africa, it has become unacceptable but 'a person of colour' is acceptable.

Any younger person who has been to university and become immersed in this culture will be well aware of the traps which lie in wait for anyone who uses the wrong phrase.

But others not in this group can inadvertently cause a Twitter storm by using the wrong pronoun or the wrong word even if they do not have any problems with race or gender.

How many older people understand what is meant by 'nonbinary'? 

History can repeat itself in unexpected ways.

Is there really a huge difference between the rigid codes of the upper classes in Victorian England and the rigid codes of today?