It has been claimed in some quarters, Henry Hitchings writes in this entertaining and informative survey of English manners past and present, that the word “sorry” is now “near extinction” in England. Hitchings disagrees. “Although that is not my experience,” he writes, “its force has diminished, and often today it does not express sorrow, penitence or even regret.” He continues:

“It can be powerful when incorporated into a sincere apology, but when it stands alone may seem hollow — a punctuation mark, with a weight no greater than a comma, in the everyday discourse of selfishness. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph in September 2011, the average Briton says ‘Sorry’ eight times a day. . . . The readiness of the English to apologize for something they haven’t done is remarkable, and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologize for what they have done. This puts me in mind of an essential paradox that I have observed: the English are polite, and they are also rude. Extreme rudeness and elaborate politeness both stem from feelings of unease; they are different techniques for twisting one’s way out of discomfiture.”

What is true of the English is also true of us on this side of the Atlantic. We Americans may not say “Sorry!” quite so reflexively as the English do, but we say it often, and often without actually meaning it. Bumping shoulders with a stranger on the sidewalk, one says without thinking, “Sorry!” but frequently with the suspicion that the fault is his or hers, so that in truth one is not sorry at all. Yet even if uttered with little or no sincerity, the verbal gesture is a form of politeness, a way of acknowledging that a minor annoyance has taken place and that the appropriate thing to do is to express regret about it.

Hitchings, a freelance writer and critic in London whose previous books include the excellent “Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary” (2005), seems to have written “Sorry!” largely to “dispute the claim that manners are in decline across the board.” In the world of the Internet, of social media, of smartphones and tablets, new ways of human interaction inevitably have arisen. “It is normal,” Hitchings writes, “in comparing the past and the present, to conclude that a great deal has been lost. It is also normal to exaggerate feelings of discomfort in the present. But manners are today more complex than ever before. As I have suggested, new social relationships entail new social codes. The intricacy of modern relationships and the wealth of channels through which we pursue them are reflected in the convoluted nature of modern manners. Rather than there being no manners, there are multitudes of conflicting manners, fraught with ambiguity.”

Before reaching this conclusion, Hitchings guides the reader through an informal history of English manners — English rather than British because the latter includes Scotland and Wales, which have their own manners and histories of manners. He begins with the medieval emphasis upon “acceptable and unacceptable behaviors at court,” a system that did not employ the word “etiquette,” yet in which “the essential idea of etiquette was present: a code of conduct existed, and with it came the idea of self-control as a virtue.” Chivalry and honor were core beliefs, embraced by the nobility in deference to the throne. The medieval age, Hitchings writes, “set up two key themes of this book. First, as new forms of sociability develop, new manners develop too. Second, manners tend to serve as protection. They shield us from aggression, insults, contact with other people’s bodily fluids (and those of their pets), exposure to others’ rubbish, unpleasant details of their lives, and also often the truth.”

“Sorry!: The English and Their Manners” by Henry Hitchings. (Courtesy of publisher)

An important change occurred during the Renaissance. If previously manners had been for the court, the Renaissance initiated a shift toward making them “for all enlightened men.” Where medieval manners involved “courtesy,” now “civility” moved to the center. “The distinction is this,” according to Hitchings: “courtesy is a quality, discussed using language that quickly becomes abstract, whereas civility implies a set of principles, an investment in a moral universe in which other people’s dignity is respected and in which their desire for dignity is respected.” This seems to me the basic principle upon which notions of manners are founded to this day, though of course the specifics have changed radically.

By the late 18th century, with the publication of Lord Chesterfield’s posthumous “Letters to His Son,” we see “the beginnings of our present distinction between manners, a word suggesting broad principles of behavior, and etiquette, which denotes the actions that articulate those principles.”

Chesterfield “preached a practical and pragmatic approach to life” that some regarded as cynical because in his view, “good conduct was more about careful imitation than deeply felt authenticity,” a distinction all too familiar to anyone in that place on the map now immortalized as “This Town.” Dr. Johnson memorably told Chesterfield that his letters were likely to “teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master,” but according to Hitchings they were “hugely popular” upon publication and remained so for many generations thereafter. As a boy in the 1940s and ’50s, I was very much aware of them, to an extent that young people today probably are not, perhaps to their benefit. If anything, today the young set the agenda: “Manners typically used to filter from the top down — not least from the old and experienced to the young and callow. But modern communications technology has changed that. Online, and throughout electronic culture, the young dictate the mood, and the rest of society learns from them or gets left out.” Hitchings writes:

“A recurrent theme when I discuss English manners with other people is the depravity of the young: looseness, slackness, self-indulgence, a callous malignity and coarse truculence, a desire for adult rights and pleasures without adult responsibilities. Though occasionally celebrated for their sexual precocity, tech-savvy and resourcefulness, young people are convicted of cultural deafness and a hazy internationalism, and of being apathetic and aggressive, barbarous and hypersensitive.”

As one who has muttered all those complaints and more, I can testify that they are as widely held over here as over there, but of course Hitchings is right: “Complaining about young people is part of maturity — of passing beyond the age of experiment, in which boundaries seem to exist in order to be tested, into an age of acquiescence and comfort, in which the boundaries seem reassuring and the business of testing them seems jejune.” If I complain about young men slouching around the city with jeans halfway down their posteriors, well, my father complained so vigorously about a cowboy hat that I affected for a while in the mid-1950s that he made me throw it out the car window. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

As much of the above surely suggests, “Sorry!” is as much about manners elsewhere in the Western world as about manners in England, but Hitchings should be allowed the last, very English, word:

“The American market for straightforward guides to etiquette dwarfs the British one. Even though large numbers of the British and especially the English are sticklers for etiquette, they pretend that such matters are either unworthy of discussion or in no need of it. Much more popular are guides that give them cynical or supercilious treatment. These reflect, wittily and sometimes not so wittily, on when it is a good idea to lie, how to navigate the hell of a second family, and the art of deflecting people who threaten to be tedious. It is a defining feature of English manners that they can be treated, simultaneously, as vitally important yet also comical. But then one could apply the very same terms to Englishness itself.”


The English and Their Manners

By Henry Hitchings

Farrar Straus Giroux. 392 pp. $28