“There is nothing fairer than a queue,” says the beautifully spoken William Hanson. A gentle man with a kind face who you wouldn’t expect to take things too seriously, he nevertheless says it with an iron resolve. “It is an art form, a kind of sport. It’s very simple and straightforward and it is quite upsetting when we see someone break that rule. They let themselves down…”

In some respects, Britain is an extremely free country – you can pretty much do anything you like here, and people won’t interfere. On the other hand, the British are tightly bound by a code of conduct that has kept a stable society for many centuries – something that, ironically, was imported from pre-revolutionary France. “It goes back to the time of Louis 14th,” says Hanson. “Etiquette was a code of conduct designed to exclude common people from the royal court. When French aristocrats later escaped to England, running from the guillotine, they brought it with them. Their fine taste, combined with English restraint, became regarded as a desirable way to live. But it was no longer elitist, it became a way for everyone to get on with one another.”

Etiquette, or as most people call it here, ‘good manners’, is inclusive. It’s a way of signalling your intention to fit in with society and works on a number of levels. It’s basic human courtesy and consideration for others, and it’s good taste – a way of broadcasting to people that you have refinement and sophistication, but in a subtle and non-intimidating way. On the face of it, many of the social conventions that started in Britain – and spread out to the wider western world – are really rather trivial. Yet when you think about them, argues Hanson, they’re about making people relaxed in a wide variety of different situations.

“There’s a wonderful logic to etiquette. There’s method behind the madness. For example, we have a set way to eat at the dining table, and this can be traced back historically. If we know how to eat politely, then we don’t offend the person opposite or beside us at the table. If you’re sitting there thinking, ‘how do I eat peas with my fork?’, you start breaking into a cold sweat, but if you already know the correct way then you can relax and concentrate on building a rapport with your neighbour. It’s a universal law that holds all around the western world, and it works…”

“More than any other country, England has been a pillar of stability. We’ve had multicultural injections stretching back thousands of years, from the Danes and the Normans to our more recent days of Empire, but being an island that hasn’t undergone any dramatic change has given us a centre of gravity which has allowed our tradition of good manners to flourish.”

A young man with an older, wiser head on his shoulders, William has been fascinated by etiquette since he was twelve years old, when his grandmother presented him with a book on the subject. “Being a precocious child, it did interest me. Grandma stayed for Christmas so it would have been rude not to read it. Then my school asked me to teach some younger children how to set a table, and I found myself showing twenty or so twelve year olds the right way to to place knives, forks and spoons. Then we went through the year group, showing them how to shake hands, write letters and dress properly.” 

William is fond of the saying, “in Europe, they have good food but in Britain we have good manners.” He adds, “what we have is this thing that endears us to lots of people. Good manners are inclusive and people want to be a part of it. Chinese people are very happy being Chinese of course, but still want to understand those little things that make western society run smoother. My dealings with China show me that many people there are absolutely fascinated by those tiny signs that say so much about your social position in western countries…” 

Hanson is as forensic as Sherlock Holmes when talking about the messages that we subconsciously send – in the way we eat, walk, dress, talk and even drive. “Gentlemen wear clothes, clothes don’t wear them. A chap should never been overdressed – which is a mistake that some Russians, Arabs and Japanese make in London – but should never be underdressed, which Americans and Chinese are occasionally guilty of. If there’s a choice, it’s better to be slightly underdressed, because being far too formal looks silly. Similarly, with the car you drive, one shouldn’t try too hard – an old Land Rover shows better taste than a shiny new Range Rover that has been modified within an inch of its life. And in Britain, we think thick black tinted windows would only be appropriate for the president of China! The colour of the car that you drive says a lot about you here – deep blues, darker greens and discrete greys are fine, but bright white, pink and red are not!”

“The British are famed for their politeness, but there’s still a delicate balance you need to take. A gentleman addresses a Duke in the same way he talks to a dustbin man – with respect and politeness. As the satirist Oscar Wilde put it, ‘one should never be unknowingly rude’ – if you ever insult someone, make sure you don’t do it accidentally! At the dinner table, a gentlemen always waits for the ladies to begin eating before he starts. In terms of attire, polished shoes are the done thing, and one always wears black on a weekday, brown at the weekend. A gentleman has a good handshake, one which is firm but doesn’t require the other chap to seek medical attention afterwards…”

The British are famous for loving their pets more than their fellow human beings, and so there’s a whole realm of good manners relating to owning animals, says William. “I would say, not everybody is interested in your pet. You may think it’s lovely, but there are others who would really rather not go near it. So when people visit your house, don’t thrust it upon them – don’t have dogs rushing up to the front door, jumping up at the visitor, for example. Also, the breed you have says a lot about you. If a Hollywood movie star owns one, that’s probably a bad sign. Dogs should have a purpose – a hunting dog or a gun dog or that sort of thing. Having a little dog that looks like a posh rat in a lady’s handbag is not a good look. Chihuahuas are a no-no!” 

William Hanson is a charming chap, full of helpful advice for those wishing to live long and prosper, but he’s also a wry social commentator. British life is full of unwritten rules, and he enjoys helping others navigate their way around them. Etiquette is the glue that keeps the fabric of society together, and his expertise is fascinating. His motto is “less is more” – meaning try, but not too hard; be polite, and accord everybody the same courtesy and respect. He’s living proof that it works – it certainly hasn’t done him any harm…