To Stand, or Not to Stand

- the Perils of Modern Etiquette

Life can, sometimes, be very confusing. Do we stand on the bus? Do we accept a seat? How long do we hold a door open for someone?

Now, I have to confess I've always been quite comfortable with those giving-up-your-seat and hold-the-door-open things. I use pretty simple 'rules': if someone, less able than me to stand (be that due to age, infirmity, having to look after children, or carrying lots of shopping), and there is no seat available, then they can have mine. If someone wants to come in to a door as I go out, they can always pass through first.

But, increasingly it seems, even this is becoming very complex. Aside from the 'Me-First' genus - you know, the ones from every generation who walk through that door without a thought or a thank you, and who never stand up on the bus - there's another complication. While it's reasonably easy to know when to say 'after you' or give up your seat up, it's increasingly difficult to know when to accept a seat from someone else. Because our modern world of informality and equality plays havoc with the 'rules' of the past. And it seems that each generation is using its very own version of etiquette.

While I, as a modern, fully-liberated woman, would never dream of expecting a man to stand up for me on the bus because I am female, there are some men, usually of my granddad's generation, who feel, no matter how much they would struggle to stand on a moving vehicle, that they are honour-bound to give up their seat to a woman. But the problem is that I would no more take the seat of an elderly gentleman than he would neglect to offer it.  So, by refusing, I risk insulting him. I know how I baulked the first time a mother told a young child to sit on her knee so that the 'lady'  (yes, me!) could sit down. Imagine what it's like when the young (okay, youngish) women no longer accept your offer of a seat, but begin offering you theirs! While I think most people who are unsteady on their feet are grateful to sit down, I've also seen the look of private disappointment when an older man has to concede he's more in need of the seat himself.

And then there's the uncomfortable fact that, although as a woman I want to be equal, I still quite like it when a chap lets me go in front of him in a queue, even though I feel a bit guilty about accepting. And that, I suppose, is where I find my path through the confusing modern etiquette. I reason that, since I was brought up that way, I'm usually the one doing the door-opening, so when someone does hold it open for me I can accept without feeling too bad about it. I mean, you can't hesitate and ask whether they're letting you through just because you're female, now can you? I'm pretty sure, no matter how egalitarian their intent, you'd soon find the door swinging back in your face!

So most of us muddle on, attempting to adhere to the old formalities of etiquette, while taking into account modern convention. But it's not as simple as that. Gender-issues aside, while the 'rules' haven't changed that much, they now seem somehow insufficient. After all, there's a whole heap of new elements to modern life that we now need to take into account. There are mobile phones, MP3 players, laptops and so on. All of which most of us now take everywhere we go. To some people dealing with this seems to come naturually.

At home we were talking about a very polite young woman that we know. You'll know someone like her, I'm sure. She always says hello, and if she stops to talk in the street, she always removes her iPod earphones. It's common politeness, as well as common sense. After all nothing says 'leave me alone' more than a pair of wires trailing from someone's ears. We all do it, particularly if we're on public transport and don't want to be disturbed. It puts people off bothering us. My mobile phone even has a similar uninviting service. A button which, when pressed discreetly in the pocket, causes the phone to ring as if I have an incoming call. I've found it invaluable in deterring drunks on buses. I should just point out, to anyone who's been in my presence when my phone has rung, that I have NEVER done this except in an emergency and nine out of ten calls I receive are fake ones - me having inadvertently set if off, fooling myself into answering - all very embarrassing! But the point is, this is a security device, it's not intended to be unsociable and nothing screams unsociable like a phone permanently clamped to an ear.

You see, after we had discussed our young friend's qualities - a credit to her family and so on and yes, I am turning into my parents - we began to discuss another person of our acquaintance. This time a woman on the verge of receiving her pension. And whose manners leave a lot to be desired. Now I've long known that manners have nothing to do with age (just as class has nothing to do with being classy) but I've always supposed that people mellow with age, that they become wiser and so use their experience to see the error of their ways. But some people, it seems, actually become worse with age. A veteran of the backhanded compliment: 'Oh how lovely to see you wearing a colour that suits you, for a change!' and the casual put down, she is most certainly of the 'Me-First' persuasion and is at her most irritating when in possession of her mobile phone. We've all been on the receiving end (usually inadvertently) of what I call 'the overheard conversation'. You know, the person on the train discussing their drinking habits or court appearances with someone on the other end of the line, but broadcasting it to the entire carriage? But when someone starts doing this when they're in your home and supposedly visiting you, it's all too much.

I'm sure I'm not being unreasonable. When I first left school I had a job at a local estate agents' in town. It was during the biggest property boom on record. We were constantly busy, with properties being listed at opening time and sold by mid-afternoon. It was chaos with queues of people wanting our help. Our overall boss, not normally noted for his personal use of etiquette of any kind, had a house rule that no matter that we might have a queue of 20 people in front of us, or that we were in the middle of serving someone, should one of the six phones beside us ring, which each did about every 2 minutes, then we should stop everything and answer it. His reasoning was that the people calling in could not see the huge queue of people before us and would, therefore, be angered by their call not being answered immediately, while those in front of us could both see the queues and hear the phone and they would be more patient. Well, at least that was his theory. In practice, of course, we were just faced with a queue of angry people right in front of us …

Anyway, my point is that, I can always see why people answer their phones even while in someone's company. I have no problem with that. I do it myself. But I also either tap the divert button - that's why it's there after all - or I excuse myself and briefly explain to the caller that I am busy and will call them back. Okay, if it's urgent, that's different but how many truly urgent calls do we get? Well, it seems some of us have more than others. A couple of weeks ago the acquaintance in question was visiting. Repeatedly her phone rang and each time, without excusing herself once, she answered it and even proceeded to spend ten minutes at a time debating something that, frankly, didn't seem the least bit important or urgent to me. She must have spent around half her visiting time on the phone. I really thought this was out of order and I wanted to say something but, being the polite creature that I am, and not wanting to cause ructions, I didn't feel it was appropriate to speak out. And so I sat there, and grumbled to everyone who would listen to me as soon as she had gone (see I'm boring you with it now) and I wondered whether there were actually any written guidelines for politely using a mobile phone. Well, it seems there is plenty of guidance for people who take the time to check. And most of it is logical and, big pat-on-the-back-to-self here, much of it agreed with my interpretation. But what didn't seem to be on offer were any kind of rules on how to deal with people who refused to be aware of those around them. Now that would be something worth knowing …