Manners and calculated rudeness can be devastating weapons

Damian Thompson wrote an extraordinary piece in the Telegraph this weekend about David Cameron’s manners.

[T]o put it bluntly, Dave is rude. More specifically, he exhibits the calculated rudeness of people with very nice manners. That isn’t a contradiction in terms. Dave is one of those people who turns his good manners up and down like a dimmer switch. He uses them as a weapon. This is a speciality of the upper classes – and the black belts of the art, in my experience, are Old Etonians.

Ask anyone who encountered him when he ran PR for Carlton: he was Flashman crossed with Mandelson.

Cameron reminds me so much of certain Etonians I’ve met over the years. The moment they lost the upper hand in conversation, there would be a sudden pulling of rank, a deliberate glazing of the eyes, or a neatly aimed belittling joke of the sort that Dave employs at PMQs.

I don’t know David Cameron so I have no idea how close to the truth any of this is. Even so, this article struck a chord because, while I have never met Mr Cameron, I have met this sort of behaviour all too often.

However much we may despise social hierarchy and claim that we are beyond all of that now, the social conditioning associated with it runs deep. True, you get some very confident working class people and some awkward and diffident posh ones. The chances are, though, that if you meet someone who oozes that breezy effortless confidence, he or she probably went to one of the more exclusive public schools.

But there are two sides to this. The only reason the pulling of rank, the raised eyebrows and the cleverly aimed comments work is because those on the receiving end allow themselves to be wounded by such tactics. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” She was right, of course, but sometimes the sense of social awkwardness runs so deep that a person can give his consent without even realising he has done so, thus laying himself open to the finely-honed eloquence of his tormentor.

Let me give you an example.

A friend of mine (bright, good degree from a good university, British-born of Asian parents, slight regional accent) once told me that he felt intimidated by ‘posh white blokes’. This was a bit of a problem as he worked in an industry where there were quite a lot of them. It annoyed him and he knew there was no reason why he should feel any more overawed by a posh white bloke than by anyone else, yet, as I say, social conditioning runs deep.

The posh white blokes didn’t need to do anything. It was something about the way they spoke, their mannerisms and the way they carried themselves. In short, they intimidated my friend just by standing there being posh white blokes.

In any contentious situation, therefore, he was at a disadvantage. The posh white bloke only had to sit there while he beat himself up with his own feelings of social awkwardness and then beat himself up again with his own self-loathing about being intimidated by posh white blokes. Having watched my friend do his job for him, all the posh white bloke then had to do was finish off with a couple of well-aimed punches. These, as Damian Thompson says, could be as effortless as “a deliberate glazing of the eyes, or a neatly aimed belittling joke”. And that would be it. The coup de grace delivered, my friend would walk out of the meeting defeated. Again. This would then fuel his feelings of inadequacy and impotent fury in the face of posh white blokes, neatly setting him up for a similar kicking next time such a situation arose.

As Damien Thompson says, not all posh white blokes manipulate the social awkwardness of others and use it as a weapon. Some go out of their way to make people feel less uneasy. Others don’t even realise that their poshness makes others feel awkward. But a few, alas, know it only too well or, if they don’t, they sense it at some visceral level and, having smelt blood, go in for the kill.

Of course, like my friend, most of us tell ourselves we are above this sort of thing. We live in an egalitarian society. We have no lords and ladies. If we have the right qualifications and track record, we too can walk in looking as though we own the place. Some of us have even been to coaches. They’ve told us that no-one can make us feel inferior without your consent, so to hell anyone who tries.

And yet, in the moment, when you are off your guard, someone says or does something and it pushes your buttons before you even know it has happened. Suddenly, inexplicably, you feel awkward. All your bravado has gone. Eventually your rational mind regains control but, by then, it may be too late. While your guard was down, the rapier-like wit of your self-assured opponent was used to devastating effect. Somehow, the bastard got one over on you and you can’t work out how he did it. Then you hate yourself because, well, we live in an egalitarian world don’t we? And none of this stuff is supposed to matter any more. But way down there, somewhere underneath, that stream of social conditioning still runs deep.

Of course, not everybody has a hang up about posh white blokes. For some people it might be posh white women, for others it might be anyone who is a bit of a bully or even someone with a great sense of fashion. Whatever hierarchy, or sense of threat, we set up in our own minds, will trigger our flight/fight responses before we have even realised what is going on. For a few people, any authority figure at all will bring down the red mist. (My problem with authority figures goes back at least to the age of six and would take an entire blog post of its own to explain.)

Poshness, though, is still intimidating for many people and some unscrupulous bosses and colleagues sense this. They turn these feelings back on their victims, helped along by a few well-timed put-downs, while using their impeccable manners and charm as cover. Just as Damien Thompson described in his article.

Older and wiser, now, my friend is more able to deal with posh white blokes. Admitting to himself that he felt intimidated by them was the first step. Not easy when you so want to believe that social class doesn’t matter any more. Nowadays, though he knows there is nothing he can do about the way posh white blokes make him feel, he is at least prepared for the feelings he gets when he goes to meet them. Because of this, the glazing of the eyes, the belittling jokes and the other black-belt strikes don’t get through quite as often.

Naming the behaviour can help in such situations too. If you can see what someone is doing and give it a name it helps you to see the blows coming and step around them. Many of the tactics deployed by Damien Thompson’s etiquette ninjas fall into the categories I described in this post. If you can spot an ad hominem or a tu quoque, you can deflect it and even, in the right context, turn it back on your attacker.

Whatever the politicians say, we still have social hierarchies. Whatever the personal development coaches and positive thinking gurus say, we still find it extremely difficult to rise above these hierarchies. When we least expect it, deeply buried feelings of inadequacy, or of perceived threat, assert themselves. Knowing that they are there, lurking in the background, is the first step to dealing with them. If you can stop beating yourself up, at least you don’t give your opponents a head start.

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21 Responses to Manners and calculated rudeness can be devastating weapons

  1. Pingback: Manners and calculated rudeness can be devastating weapons - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Hilary Burrage says:

    Amendment please to previous post this morning: 2010, not 2008 Apologies!

  3. patrickhadfield says:

    I know someone who was at university with Cameron. His mother still says that Cameron had the nicest phone manner – the politest – of anyone she ever experienced on the phone. And that call must have been twenty years ago!

  4. Prateek Buch says:

    “A friend of mine (bright, good degree from a good university, British-born of Asian parents, slight regional accent)”

    could be talking about me :-)

    seriously though, despite having attended a public school (not an EtonWinchesterHarrowWestminster but rather a relatively down-to-Earth northern former grammar school) I still feel this on occasion – less so nowadays but every so often I come across cutting rudeness dressed as impeccable politeness and recoil, losing my otherwise solid confidence.

  5. Sorry, trying again, again to post this!…

    Rick’s point is as ever well made, and part of a really important conversation about conversations.

    It reminds that years ago, a close friend, a professional violinist from a very modest social background, formed a student string quartet (two violins, obviously). The other violinist, though not such a strong performer, announced that he had to be the lead player because he’d ‘learnt to be a leader at public school’.

    And this without a hint of irony or self-reflection; just straight (ill-placed but very deeply rooted and effective) self-belief. It seems things don’t change.

    Back in 2010 I took a look at a similar issue in a blog: http://amillionsmallconversations.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/etiquette-exclusion-or-level-playing-field/. Might we agree that ‘Etiquette as a means to achieve social exclusion’ could be one way to describe what Rick notes here, and was happening then?

  6. Very good article. Worth reflecting too on the plight of the posh white male who finds himself rubbing people up the wrong way and having to adapt his approach on an ongoing basis. I have a colleague who seems to have a problem with my confidence levels, or the fact that I’m a man, or the fact that I’m younger than her (I’m not posh). The slightest oversight on my part (and I really don’t try to be rude to her) triggers an over-the-top email. I feel like we’re both trying to overcome her social conditioning, but sometimes I have her help with that and sometimes I don’t….

    • Rick says:

      Michael, I didn’t mean this to be a dig at posh people, it’s just that Damien Thompson’s article brought it to light and it’s the most obvious example of an area where people feel awkward.

      As I said, the posh white bloke only has to stand there to make some people feel nervous. My beef is with him (or anyone else) who exploits that power.

      As you say, trying to allow for other people’s feelings of inadequacy or threat can be hard work too.

      Then there is the flip side, of course, people who use neediness and perceived weakness as a weapon (emotional blackmail etc) but that’s another blog post!

      • Point taken – you say in the post that this isn’t just about posh white blokes. I think these different dimensions make it (clashes of social conditioning?) a very interesting problem, especially as navigating it can generate an overhead in terms of time.

    • Michael: I absolutely don’t know the circumstances of course, but could it be that ‘sometimes’ your female colleague is, conversely, also ‘trying’ to help you with what could be your (? to some eyes) inappropriate levels of confidence for your age / experience thanks likewise to your social conditioning (as a perhaps quite dominant youngish male)?

      I’m sure you’re not actually intending to be rude to her, but that may not be the only factor in this perceived inbalance; and as I said, I genuinely don’t know… Just asking.

      Where do you think the larger part of the inequity of power lies, not least between, say, confident young men and, say, older women colleagues? POSH comes in lots of guises!

      POSH: Power Over Submissive Humanity?? or something…

      • Thanks – I thought I’d get a response along those lines from such a thoughtful readership! ;-) Yes, all this helps to unpack why dialogue is important – naming the behaviour, as Rick says, is key. Funny thing is, it’s taken four years to get this out in the open a bit more because I’m not as assertive as I appear, and because of her apparent defensiveness. If I’d gone to Eton, possibly I wouldn’t even be mulling this over. :-)

  7. Re: posh blokes (&c). Like others, I’d absolutely agree you can’t help being ‘born posh’ – and indeed there are some VERY POSH ice-women as well – but the difference is that, as Michael says, such folk can, at least to a degree, choose for themselves whether to act posh. (Not sure whether those who act diffy choose quite so assuredly, tho’ again I’d agree that they can certainly put others who choose to respond to their diffiness at a disadvantage.)

    The critical distinguishing factor is having the choice of whether or not to impose oneself on others. For posh folk, the DEFAULT setting is posh. For others it’s insecurity.

    Those settings are learnt very early on, and that’s where going to Posh School and not the local sec.mod or comp – especially where close family links are denied at what to many seem at far too young an age – makes for seriously hard-wired.

  8. I think the key here is this as Rick says: “…or some people it might be posh white women, for others it might be anyone who is a bit of a bully or even someone with a great sense of fashion. Whatever hierarchy, or sense of threat, we set up in our own minds, will trigger our flight/fight responses before we have even realised what is going on.” It’s knowing how to control your flight/fight responses. I know a few people who teach mindfulness/yoga/NLPs –
    1. If you suddenly find yourself in a whirlwind, imagine yourself as a pebble. However much the waves are crashing above you, let them roll over you
    2. Imagine yourself with reflective mirrors all around you: as they throw insults, raise their voice, try to intimidate you, surround yourself with mirrors so you don’t take on their stuff, but you make it reflect back on them
    3. Take a deep breath, and draw it up through your toes, up to your knees and back down so that it helps to ground you and deflects the tension
    4. If you’re in a meeting and it’s tense. Keep clenching your thighs and releasing and clenching. When you go into flight, your body releases adrenalin and it creates panic. By using your thigh which is one of your biggest muscles, it absorbs the adrenalin as you trick your mind and deters your flight reaction so you can remain steady, calm and collected and have time to regain your composure before you react emotionally.

    • I can absolutely vouch for the grounding techniques (3 & 4) that you mention Natalie – in fact I recognise technique 4 from the approach that I work with as a Yoga Therapist – Yoga for the Mind.
      There are definitely things that you can do to counteract “in the moment” anxiety through mind-body approaches, but not only that, instilling these practises over the long term has the capacity to bring about changes in your outlook and with that comes growing confidence – something that would be helpful for the gentlemen mentioned in the main article who finds himself feeling overpowered and intimidated by “posh white blokes”
      We all have our own insecurities and vulnerabilities, not least in relation to business, and learning some techniques to help regulate the body’s stress response can be vital in minimising emotion fuelled responses in favour of rational ones. On many occasions have I taught clients such simple techniques, as the ones mentioned, that can be used at anytime, wherever they are, in order to deal with difficult colleagues and managers in a more effective way.

  9. Dipper says:

    I went to a comprehensive, and all my children went to a comprehensive, except my eldest daughter who has just started sixth form at the local public school.

    What a revelation its been. The manners of her fellow pupils are impeccable, but being on the receiving end of a torrent of deep concern for my comfort cultivates a feeling of indebtedness, and an automatic assumption of social superiority of the person dispensing this tide of bonhomie and care. So much about modern Britain now makes sense.

  10. Wolfie says:

    Amazing how a few observations of David Cameron can so easily morph into a veritable bigot’s banquet.

    It has been my observation in life that people concoct many an excuse for why they are inferior or have failed in some way; usually accident of birth is high on the list.

  11. Pingback: How much of a role does class play in self-confidence? | Liberal Conspiracy

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