The first written code of manners could be said to be found in the 10 Commandments. Leaving aside the religious exhortations, it is basic politeness not to covet your neighbour's wife, or ox (Ferrari) or ass (VW Golf) or any of his material possessions. Adultery with the neighbour's (or anyone else's) wife is pretty low on the bad manners front--and as for murder, well there's not many ruder acts than killing someone. Stealing, perjury, and being dishonourable to your aged parents are not looked on as good either, even in modern times. This set of basic taboos is common to all mankind, and if we break them, we are punished by society in one way or another, although, as society has changed and we have become more 'civilised', the punishments are less and less rigorous for some of the offences, which not so many years ago would have seen a perpetrator ostracised or even executed.
Knowing the various different codes of behaviour which apply in our particular societies--ie how to behave with 'good manners'--is an important skill which enables us to exist peacefully with our fellow humans. As William of Wykeham once said, "Manners Makyth Man". In earlier times, children had manners strictly drilled into them, and bad manners were punished by beatings and lockings in rooms--my own grandmother was very much of the 'seen and not heard' school. (I'm glad for my own children's sake that that one has changed.) My other grandmother informed me that it was bad manners not to leave a little food on the side of the plate 'for Mr Manners' . As a very young child, I used to imagine Mr Manners as a sort of spindly hobgoblin (or house elf), who lived under the table and didn't get much to eat. I had nightmares about his thin, bony fingers on the end of an even thinner, bonier arm reaching out and up from the darkness at my feet to take his due from my plate. No wonder Gran told my mother I was a fussy eater!
The manners of everyday life have changed rapidly over the last twenty years here in England--and all over the world. Men still (just) open doors for ladies, offer seats, walk on the outside of the pavement. But where, before, this simple politeness was accepted as just that from a woman's point of view, now it may be perceived as sexist behaviour, bad manners, and may be extremely unwelcome. In my own childhood, I would never have thought of contradicting or arguing with my parents. It would have been seen as the rudest. Now my own children think nothing of having a different opinion about something--and expressing it. It's now normal behaviour (even though a snarly teenage bout of surliness still gets stamped on pretty quickly!). Whatever else has changed, though, we Brits have one unbreakable rule of manners. We queue. And if someone barges in front of us, we get jolly cross. It's just bad manners!
But there is another sphere of potential bad manners which is totally new to those of us born in the '60's and even the '70's. The Internet and cyberspace are a minefield metamorphosing at warp speed where manners and etiquette are concerned--especially the social networks. Is it rude to ignore a 'Friend Request' on Facebook? Will someone think it's bad manners if I delete or block them (will they even know or care)? What is the etiquette about commenting? And on Twitter, how many #hashtags should go in a tweet? Do I have to follow everyone who follows me, or can I just follow the ones who interest me? Can I jump into someone else's tweet exchange? Do we even need manners on the web? All this stuff is evolving so fast it's impossible to know what's right and what's wrong--you just have to do your best, lurk, watch what everyone else is doing, copy that (if they're doing it, it must be ok, mustn't it?).
If in doubt, there's one rule of manners which pretty much covers every situation, whether at home, abroad or on the fluid world of the web. 'Do as you would be done by'. And so we're back to the Bible again--New Testament this time.
PS. Since we're on manners here, and I wouldn't want to be rude, let me just say thanks awfully for reading this. It's frightfully kind of you. Cheerio.