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.