2014 / Sunday

Let’s All be Polite to Each Other

Lucy Rennick

Sandi Toksvig

Sandi Toksvig

After one has attended a discussion on good manners, one might expect to be privy to the proper use of each fork and spoon on the table; one might have been perhaps a little bored during the discussion, but one would be well-informed on “the right way” to behave in a civil society.

Danish-born entertainer Sandi Toksvig and speechwriter Lucinda Holdforth’s Modern Etiquette panel at the Writers’ Festival surprised, delighted and entertained a packed house with their candid conversation that, at times, revolved around the complete opposite of good manners. Those hoping for anything that resembled a rulebook for the modern age would have been sorely disappointed. The conversation that transpired between the two accomplished women was a reminder that bad manners are inescapable, relatable and sometimes outrageously entertaining facts of life.

“I was in London on a tube train by myself late one night,” Ms Toksvig recalled. “There was young man over the other side. He points to his lap and says, ‘what do you think of that, then?’”

“For some reason I assumed he was holding a map. By the time I found my glasses and walked all the way over to him, he had wilted into something quite different,” she said.

“I realised what he had tried to do and started laughing, which was completely not the reaction he was looking for. While I was sitting there crying with laughter, he ran off. I shouted out to him saying how sorry I was! I bet he never does it again.”

Sandi Toksvig is what Lucinda Holdforth calls “a well-mannered rebel”. Speaking with a Cambridge accent peppered with faint Danish inflections, she exhibited perfect diction; something that comes in handy when sharing anecdotal evidence of just how bad some peoples’ manners can be. Tales of skipping school and inadvertently shaming public nuisances are made to sound like a chapter in a storybook. Her impeccable comedic timing is no doubt a function of a prolific career, surrounded by company of the highest calibre. Besides being a regular guest on ABC’s QI alongside Stephen Fry, Ms Toksvig studied alongside Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Emma Thompson at Girton College at Cambridge University.

It’s unsurprising then that the conversation remained resoundingly lighthearted throughout the duration of the discussion. But that’s not to say there weren’t real wisdoms communicated to the audience about the importance of manners in society. Listening to Ms Toksvig and Ms Holdforth talk, it became clear that manners are about so much more than refraining from talking with your mouth full.

Good manners are the key to relating positively to one another in an attempt to maintain civility. Unhappily, they are often not evident in many day-to-day social situations. No “pleases” and “thank you”, no expressions of gratitude, no fulfillment of a promise made.

But where exactly do these accepted behavioral conventions come from, and why are they so ingrained in society? Even Ms Toksvig was thrown when her eight-year-old stepdaughter responded with a simple (and, of course, polite) “why” in response to being told to remove her elbows from the dinner table, a question that eventually provided the impetus for Toksvig’s book, Peas and Queues.

“Lots of the rules are to do with managing to be together and not thinking too much about aspects of each other’s lives that we really don’t want to deal with,” she says. She goes on to say that this is, in effect, the reason why not one member of the audience would eat soup stirred with a brand new toilet brush, or why, as a species, we don’t like the thought of another’s moistness.

Despite the many jokes, quips and musings on the oft-inexpedient aspects of the human condition, the message Sandi Toksvig imparted was overtly simple.

“Let’s all just be polite to each other,” she says, adding that well-mannered behavior makes people feel comfortable. “That’s it! Be nice, be considerate, be thoughtful, and treat the other person as you would hope to be treated yourself.”