This week we’re reading: The Gentlewoman’s guide to Modern Manners
Technology and social norms have changed so much since the millennium’s turn that sometimes I am not sure what is passé or proper any more; like how to politely leave a gathering, whether I can send an apology by text message and should I still use an email Out-of-Office reply? So, I was very pleased to find one of my favourite magazines, The Gentlewoman, is publishing Modern Manners: A Guide to Living Fabulously Well.
Out this month, the guide is a compilation of essays written by their esteemed contributors, as well as surveys of questions posed to celebrities and other household names for modern etiquette advice (What do you give as a thank you? being my favourite). Concerns are grouped into seven category-sections including Modern Conundrums, The Unmentionables, and How To Be… It is an absorbing read that had me wanting to immediately gather some friends together to discuss – and afterwards of course, I would leave elegantly not slink out or overstay my welcome.
For example, Joan Juliet Buck, former editor of French Vogue, defends excess: “I see the world divided into the excessives, who suffer from a fear of empty space – generous types with volatile tempers who believe More is More – and the measured who appreciate midcentury modern, purge their wardrobes and serve you one lamb chop at dinner.” I could relate to Caroline Roux’s ‘Telephone’ in the Making Life Better section: “A phone call has the intimacy of listening to radio; the imagination can provide the pictures.”
I was particularly interested in what Anna-Marie Solowij, former Beauty Editor (Marie Claire, Vogue UK) and Co-founder of BeautyMART, had to say about re-gifting. As someone who has received hundreds of samples of super-expensive and desirable products over her career she, better than most, knows it is anathema to not pass on perfectly untouched product. But the experience has her questioning the categories of re-gifting and arguing that there is a need for new and varied nomenclature: the pift (passed on gift); nift (the no-longer-wanted gift); or the forbidden rift.” And because the re-gift has tarnished value, she addresses this with her personal solution.
Many of the topics had me thinking about the deeper meaning behind things I take for granted, for example, faceless restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin had me consider the value and futility of maintaining anonymity in this age of you-as-a-brand, and Eva Wiseman had me questioning the purpose of tipping in the 2020s: “Is tipping a voluntary way of rewarding service, or is it quietly, compulsory, an undisclosed portion of the server’s wages to be paid directly by the customer?” … a debate which has much currency in the hospitality industry now as restaurants struggle to find staff.
So, back to the question of whether to leave an Out-of-Office (OoO) reply? Susie Rushton directs us to Arianna Huffington’s company ‘Thrive Global’ which has created an app that deletes incoming messages while you are on holiday and simultaneously informs recipients that their emails will not be read. Or better yet, tried-and-true humour is still a way to ease a bitter message with good grace, as actress Tilda Swinton proves. Her OoO states: “Hello, I’m away until 2070”, because we all know that’s how long it will probably, realistically, take most of us to reply to a holiday inbox.
I can’t guarantee that the modern manners this book discusses will still be the same come 2070, but the advice should get us safely through the next decade or so. It is not a dictionary-type resource, nor is it a comprehensive tome of all modern manners, but I really enjoyed it because the writing is superb and its advice is truly befitting a modern gentlewoman
Modern Manners: Instructions for Living Fabulously Well by The Gentlewoman, Phaidon, October 2021, £19.95 / US$24.95
Alexia Economou is a design and culture journalist, and regular TNMA contributor @thedesignfeedT