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The tricky terrain of being impeccably mannered, perfectly spoken, politically correct, not a hair or word out of place sounds like a suffocating place to be in. What if you had to kiss everyone on both cheeks at a party, shake hands for precisely six seconds at a meeting, and bend only so much if you meet an ambassador of a country but stand ramrod straight everywhere else? Getting your etiquette right to a fault, however, is one of the most important ways to be a shining member of the luxury industry, or so said Joanne Milner, chief executive of Debrett’s, one of the oldest (founded in 1769) British sources on manners and etiquette. She emphasized why well-mannered and well-groomed people do better business.

At the Mint Luxury Conference held in Mumbai last week, I moderated a conversation with Milner on why manners maketh a man. Though Milner made all the socially and politically correct comments on why a genuine effort to smile, understand and engage with people opens a relationship of trust, germane to any profession, the luxury industry or otherwise, I was keen to fork out nuances on modern manners instead of being tied down by “sorrys" and “thank yous". Some of us, in fact, may feel a little overwhelmed by the Debrett’s website (www.debretts.com). The many theories on personal, social and professional etiquette not only make me feel inadequate but also a little cynical about the pressure to get everything right.

With tips on how to apologise, what to say while enquiring after an ailing person, comment on the weather or what to wear for funerals, such sources leave little for that one brand that the luxury industry hankers after but continues to find elusive—individuality.

At the same time, what interested me on this website was the Debrett’s handbook. It has been updated to include modern manners that include contemporary issues like divorce behaviour, digital and networking etiquette besides publishing a rerun of how to communicate with royalty (really, you can’t be more British than this), correct forms of address for people in social positions, dealing with overnight guests or how to pronounce surnames.

The clichés are tiring but divorce etiquette and digital manners are a crucial part of our contemporary dilemmas. In India particularly, while we are still adapting to English manners (a certain knife for the steak and a certain spoon for the pudding), we may be clumsy at divorce etiquette. Divorces in our society are still hugely burdened with social awkwardness with two big families in an inconclusive war with each other. Ditto for digital manners for which we have no common charter. While many wonder whether to CC or who to BCC in official correspondence, a majority among the youth seem to be perennially tapping on their smartphones as their single source and centre of learning on love, sex, travel, general knowledge, history, movies and communication at large. Manners? What do we know that it is rude to the receiver of an email if he is BCC-ed and that the best way is to forward the mail with a note of confidentiality.

In an informal conversation with Milner before she made her presentation to the audience, she made a pertinent point which diminished my doubts about extreme etiquette. She spoke about how young people pursuing education in foreign countries need certain behavioural skills to make the most of such cross-cultural opportunities. And why the older generation needs to learn more online skills just as the younger generation must be educated for better offline skills.

While I still find learning manners by rote only selectively impactful to enhance the quality of life, personal and professional, luxury industry or not, there is little doubt that it would lend confidence to those under constant attack of social nervousness.

No wonder this genre is one of the most successful in self-help books. My top favourite is Bethanne Patrick’s An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy: How Manners Shaped The World. Taking a global route to decode different cultures, Patrick also explains why you shouldn’t cut potatoes with a knife in Germany or why pickled tea leaves mean you are welcome in Myanmar.

It may be the right time for an Indian writer to put together a guide to modern Indian manners. Please include tips on the importance of queuing up and flushing in public loos, why an ex-spouse is not an enemy, why paan spits on the roadsides should invite three-month suspensions at the workplace and why shouting on prime time television is downright rude and crude.

Sorry about being so preachy. Thank you for reading me.

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