Minding our manners, acting our age?

I have been working on an essay on the development of a particular code of manners in particular places (to do with my research on urban culture). I've always been fascinated not only by the rules prescribed in various books on correct form, but the way they vary not only over time, but in different places. I tend to agree with the books that hesitate to recommend taking wine to a dinner party (and certainly expecting to drink it) as this can be read as impugning the quality of the host's cellar. When I cook dinner, I've already planned which wines I'm serving to match the courses. While I certainly don't mind a friend bringing wine as a gift, it goes in the cupboard for me to drink later: I don't serve it that night. And when I'm a guest I tend to take something non-consumable (or chocolates). These days it's common to observe such incidents of colossal rudeness (frankly, obnoxiousness) that dinner gifts, place cards and printed invitations are of somewhat marginal concern. But the fact that rules exist I think is a good thing.

However, not everyone agrees. The idea of etiquette seems confusing. Some regard it as old-fashioned, anti-democratic, the idea of having rules imposed from on high and being told what to do is something they resent. Others argue that in fact it can be very egalitarian, as it is about treating everyone decently. I tend to be in the second camp. In common with many (most?) people of my generation, I was raised being told I could be whatever I wanted to, and that I shouldn't worry about what other people thought. At the same time, however, my mother was frequently dropping reminders about appropriate behaviour: so obviously what other people thought DID matter.

But it's this confusing nexus that seems to have produced a lot of the poor public decorum we see today. Likewise when a tourist is arrested for going topless on a beach in a conservative part of the world: those of us raised in multicultural democracies, having been told our whole lives we need to respect the cultural practices of others, see the flipside of that as the right to pursue our own choices unhindered (even - or especially - if those choices include semi-nudity, public inebriation, wearing a miniskirt in a temple, offensive t-shirt slogans, swearing loudly in the street: how dare you not be TOLERANT of my lifestyle. F*ck you).

I've noticed this particularly since I moved to Germany, where (at least in my neighbourhood) people are generally quiet. Returning to the UK for a conference, I found myself walking around London at night. It was a pleasantly warm evening so I wanted to take a stroll. I found myself skirting huge bags of trash dumped on the footpath, stepping over puddles of vomit, being approached by beggars, and having to listen to a man having a very loud conversation (on the other side of the street) on his mobile phone in which he was yelling obscenities. And this was in a "nice" area. I suppose I was inured to it in the past (the urine-smelling alleys, the litter, the graffiti), but it's jarring having been away to encounter this level of unpleasantness. I've always been fond of London, but it's hard to escape the vision of a city in decay. Or rather, separate cities. If you have afternoon tea at the Lanesborough and dine at Roussillon and travel everywhere by taxi, it is one of the most wonderful cities in the world. But by the time you've struggled through peak hour tube traffic, been shouted at by drunks, and had to wonder what that was you just stepped in, it's rather dystopic.

I remember hearing from my mother that when she was young, "going into town" meant dressing up. When wearing hats and gloves was considered appropriate. Now, nobody treats "going to the city" as an occasion for which they might dress up. There's been some recent discussion that Mad Men is bringing back stylish dressing - would Don Draper be seen in a t-shirt and jeans? When clothing becomes more democratic, I don't see why that has to mean "lowest common denominator" but as others have observed, many adults today dress like children. Shorts, t-shirts, tracksuits.... Is this a related phenomenon? Since we're not dressed like grown-ups, we don't act like them? The people shouting abuse and being sick in the street, in any city I've spent time in, are NOT the ones wearing Sunday best.

Some years ago, I recall hearing about a nightclub (I think it was Annabels?) in which an experiment with abandoning the suit and tie dress requirement for "smart casual" turned into a disaster: behaviour in the club slipped dramatically under the "casual attire" rule, so the old jacket and tie requirement was brought back toute de suite. Needless to say, I'm a big fan of dress codes. At least if I know what I'm expected to wear, I don't have to worry about whether I'll be dressed appropriately. As with etiquette, some see dress requirements as restrictive, I feel they can be liberating by putting everyone on an equal footing. (I'm also incredibly skeptical of "Casual Friday" and other management fads).

Is it too much to hope that we will return to a time in which being over-25 means it really is time to dress and act like an adult?