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07 February 2012

When etiquette is not etiquette

Before going too far, it would be convenient, as judges in the British courts are apt to say, to consider what etiquette is not—a subject which I shall be returning to quite often. One thing it is not, is boasting, and particularly boasting about etiquette.
     Here is a passage from a recent programme transcript form the Voice of Russia English service. The subject was “Russian Etiquette Nowadays”. (The transcript is available on-line; I have corrected trivial grammatical errors.)
“The first wave of emigration [after the Revolution] consisted of nobility and representatives of the intelligentsia: scientists, writers, lawyers and philosophers. What Europe saw were no straggly bunch of emigrants, but the veritable ‘comme it faut Russian-style’: highly educated, boasting a refined upbringing, subtle taste and faultless manners; they also demonstrated sincerity and artlessness. And if we ask what exactly struck foreigners the most in these Russian emigrants – the answer would be refined manners that could only be inculcated on the basis of Orthodox ethics. It’s important to stress this, since etiquette and upbringing are not one and the same. Etiquette, or the outward behavioural manners, can be used to cover up vices and hidden agenda. Russian etiquette is indivisible from high morals and overall culture level, and, consequently, the national roots. This is, most probably, a purely Russian phenomenon, when the behavioural form is indispensably linked with sincerity and dignity, but not with hypocrisy or double standards.”
     Speaking, therefore, as a disadvantaged Scot, without the benefit of Orthodox ethics, I can only feel second best in the face of this wall of virtue. My faulty manners are perhaps to blame for the fact that I disagree with the author. I have visited many places in the world, like Zululand, the Outer Hebrides and indeed Communist Russia, where I found many examples of modesty, good manners and friendliness that were not inspired by Orthodox ethics. Though Nelson Mandela is a Xhosa, I suspect even Zulus would agree that his behaviour has long been characterised by sincerity and dignity. Yet there is not a cupola to be seen all the way from Stutterheim to Kokstad.
     Our etiquette expert later says: “In our day and age one would be at a loss to find genuine samples of civility and refined manners [in Russia]. The life of a greater part of the new Russian ‘elite’ boils down to a succession of swanky parties and mindless money-spending at lush Western resorts. Alas, these people have done anything but improve the image of Russians as seen through the eyes of Europeans.”
     Once again, I feel like a “straggly emigrant” when I say that I rather like parties, spending money and “lush” (I presume she means “plush”) Western resorts. I am not sure that the aristocracy of which she writes, was not much the same. What about Nabokov in Switzerland, or Turgenev at Baden-Baden - or Dostoyevsky. If gambling is not mindless money-spending then I do not know what is. But it would be a breach of etiquette to point it out too emphatically.