Modern Etiquette Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Modern Etiquette

60 Conversations

A person in a cinema talking loudly on their mobile phone

In the past, communities had very detailed rules on 'how one should behave'. Dinners became a highly-orchestrated procedure that maintained a person's status in society; greetings were highly formalised and everyone knew their place. But nowadays, we don't have that structured lifestyle to fall back on. We don't automatically know what to do in any given situation.

As the band Blur so wisely proclaimed, modern life is rubbish: people never speak to each other, they barge past one another always rushing to be 'somewhere else,' they blank strangers who might have the cheek to ask 'Could you spare some change so I have somewhere to sleep tonight that doesn't smell of urine?' and contraptions designed for carrying our children are used to ram into the legs of anyone in the way...

... but it doesn't have to be this way. We might not be able to set the rules of our own society, but we can suggest some standards to live by. We asked you for your modern etiquette tips, and below is your response.

Interaction with the Service Industry

The attitude of shop assistants to customers shows a very wide range of politeness - from utter rudeness to very helpful assistance delivered with great consideration to the customer's needs. The traditional guide to shopkeepers, asserting that 'the customer is always right' may not now be suitable to modern retailing and could do with a significant rethink - but it is certainly a starting point.

The most important thing for assistants to do, at least from the viewpoint of customer satisfaction, is to always consider what the customer wants and to help him/her to get it as quickly as possible. The modern marketplace is complicated, with more choice than ever. This choice is why the major complaint against some shop assistants (particularly in shops such as mobile phone shops) is that you have to drag the information out of them.

The following is a list of guidelines to help retail assistants deal with lengthier enquiries from customers:

  • Ask people in the shop if they need help when you see that they do, not when they have just walked in the door- it puts the customer under pressure.

  • When you do see people standing around, offer your assistance promptly. If you are with another customer try to get another assistant to help.

  • Listen to what the customer asks you, or tells you, then give a brief summary of their options (ie what phones or tariffs would be suitable for them, and give the benefits and drawbacks to each).

  • Give the customer all suitable options, when available, and tell him/her what you think would be best.

  • At Christmas, always leave a gift for the postman and the garbage men. (Even if it's just a Christmas card with a note of thanks and a couple of lottery tickets).

Library Etiquette

Well it seems that historically a library has been a place for research and studying. So it seems logical that these places be kept quiet for those doing research or studying. Some people go to the library to study because it is quiet, maybe quieter than their homes. The people who want to talk also have rights, but they should be courteous to the people who would like a little quiet.

It no longer seems reasonable to expect that the library be absolutely silent, but when it starts to sound like a large party you know the volume has gone up a little too much. Moderation is key here. Many people dislike whispering but an equal number of people dislike hearing loud voices. If everyone is willing to compromise and use a quieter indoor voice then the people who want to talk may talk, and the people who want to study can do so productively.

I work in a library. Many of the old conventional rules of library etiquette are totally ignored these days, the most obvious of which is to speak softly. I honestly don't think that people know how they're supposed to behave in the library or anyplace else.
We've made signs to gently remind our patrons to speak softly, turn their mobile phones off, and to dress appropriately. (They never read the signs, however.) We've had to create policies about things that should be taken for granted. No, you can't ride your scooter inside the building. No, you can't eat pizza and drink beer while you use library public access computers. Yes, you have to wear a shirt and shoes. No, you can't wear a thong bikini inside the library even if it is 100° outside. No, you can't have sex in the stacks. Yes, you do have to return the books you borrow. No, you can't play your boom-box at full volume on the library steps. No, you can't skate inside the building. No, you can't use the public restrooms to bathe and do your laundry. No, you can't leave your pre-school children for us to babysit while you go do your shopping. No, you can't change your baby's diaper on the circulation counter. And we have actually had to create a rule forbidding people from bringing their motorcycles into the building. We already had one that dealt with bicycles.


Proper, ethical charity collecting should not involve people actually being asked for money - did you know that a charity collector is not allowed to even rattle the tin? If a tin rattler asks you to donate, then they are behaving unethically.

The whole principle of tin-rattling is to give passers by the opportunity to donate if they wish to and if they don't, they can just carry on without being made to feel like a lower grade slug-type creature for making a perfectly legitimate choice (like either donating their bus fare to the charity or walking 13 miles home in the pouring rain).

The point of charity is that it's something someone gives out of generosity (it doesn't have to be money - it could be time given to a community initiative or something). That's a nice thing.


These are the people who block your path on your way to lunch/work and who try to squeeze cash from you for a worthy cause. The following Researcher has the following three tactics off-pat.

I have three tactics:

  • Walk past them going 'I have a portfolio of charities I give to via the Gift Aid scheme'.

  • Stop and let them do their spiel and then say 'But in the first year most of the money I would give would go direct to your agency, so I think I will give directly to the charity. Thanks anyway!'

  • If they are a cancer charity I say 'I am sorry, but having used to work for a medical charity I know cancer charities are some of the best-funded charities around so if you don't mind my tenner is going to Oxfam.'

Aren't I cruel?

Positively evil... mwahahahahaha!

On the Buses

Buses have been shuttling people from pillar to post for years. In all that time, the etiquette for riding on them has changed little and is still as relevant today as it was 100 years ago.

  • Giving up your seat - Standing up for younger children especially those not yet in their teens is a matter of safety as they do not yet have as well defined a level of balance as an adult yet. While you can quite happily manage the bends and sharp halts, a child can't. So if you do see a mother struggling with a younger child give up your seat, she is not only having to balance herself but also her child.

    It should go without saying that seats should be sacrificed for the elderly, pregnant and the infirm, too.

  • Smells - If you're going to use the bus (or any other form of public transport) you're going to be in close proximity to other users. Do them a favour and control excess smells; we're talking about body odour, bad breath and pungent food.

  • Volume - Keep the volume down on your personal stereo! For heaven's sake, we don't want to hear it.

  • Personal space - You with the newspaper - keep your elbows in please.

  • Queues - Admittedly these days there are multiple queues for different buses all at the same stop. But try and remember who got there before when it comes to getting onto your bus and don't push too far ahead of others when your bus does eventually turn up accompanied by two others on the same route.

  • Seating - Don't have a place for you and a place for your bag - you'll only have to put them on the floor when someone wants a seat, so save yourself the hassle. Also, don't sit on the aisle seat and leave the window seat vacant - it's just inconsiderate and unnecessary.

The Bus Driver's Viewpoint

And here's what the driver has to say. So pay attention...

  • Thank yous - I generally say thank you to every passenger getting on my bus when they pay their fare - even the ones who throw a pile of smash in the fare box and expect you to know what fare they want. Our buses have separate exit doors in the middle of the bus which tends to limit communications between alighting passengers and drivers.

  • Buggies - We have a mix of low-floor, easy access buses and older 'steps up' buses. Unfolded buggies are only allowed on the former where they can be parked in the wheelchair space (on the older vehicles the law says they must be folded to avoid blocking exits or gangways). A wheelchair always has priority over a buggy.

  • Smells - You think it's bad being a passenger travelling with a smelly co-passenger. Imagine what it's like for the driver - at least you can get off if the smell is too overpowering! On some of our routes we can be subjected to everything from s**t to Chanel.

  • Giving up your seat - There are days when I wish I could give up my seat to anybody.

  • Mobile phones - Should be switched off on all forms of public transport.

  • Kids - Children should only be allowed on public transport if accompanied by both parents.

Mobile Phones

There are some circumstances where a mobile phone should not be used at all: turn the thing off and let voicemail take care of the calls for a little while. These are circumstances where the ringtone and ensuing conversation would be obtrusive, such as at a movie, concert, or church service. The only trouble is remembering to turn the thing back on later.

There are some circumstances where using a mobile phone is fine, as long as the user does not imagine a phone booth around them, allowing them to shut out anyone who happens to be actually standing near them. Think of a person standing in line at the supermarket. Before s/he gets to the cash register, they may talk away ad infinitum. Once they get to the register, however, it's time to say 'Look, I'll call you back in a minute,' and hang up. Remember that the person standing behind the cash register is just that - a person, and should be treated as such.

And then there are some circumstances where using a mobile phone is fine, but it seems to irritate the rest of civilization, such as in a restaurant. If a person is sitting alone at a table, and the phone rings, and they talk at a normal (ie not loud) volume, what's the problem? The only difference between this conversation and the one at the next table is that you can only see one of the people in this conversation.

As long as you don't ignore the people standing around you, and don't talk really loudly, and the conversation doesn't intrude on what you're doing, talk all you want.

Prams and Pushchairs

Prams and buggies come in several sizes and shapes, from the compact foldaway buggy which can be collapsed with a deft touch, to the 'slightly smaller than a Mini' pram (often a twin carrier) which requires a degree in engineering to operate. Often equipped with various accessories such as raincovers, shopping baskets, changing bags and toddler boards, these contraptions are a cumbersome but necessary item in the life of a parent.

Only those who are currently undergoing the strains of negotiating the great outdoors with a pram will understand the often frustrating feeling of trying to get past other pedestrians or (horror of horrors) of using public transport. Everyone will always be moving a lot slower than you are, and will always dive in front of you in some sort of suicidal move.

When on public transport, if possible, go for a bus/train that will take your pram unfolded, as it is something of a logistical nightmare to fold up a pram with baby/toddler in one arm and shopping in the other. Always make it clear from your facial expression just how harassed you are and other passengers had better make way...or else.

If you see someone struggling to get a pushchair or pram through a shop doorway, please hold the door open for them. It's particularly hard to manoeuvre double pushchairs and pushchairs with toddlers in tow through doors and it makes such a difference if someone is kind enough to hold the door. Looking after babies and small children is physically hard work, and the parents/mother often doesn't get a lot of sleep, so this small polite gesture will be very much appreciated.

Junk Mail and How to Deal With It

The blight of every single household does have a and you shall find:

The junk mail or leaflet you receive will usually have an address on it so that you can order the products and services you don't want. Return the junk mail to the address, in a plain envelope, without a stamp on it. The recipient will have to pay the Post Office 99p to get back their own junk mail. If you are in a polite mood, you may wish to include a note giving your name and address. This will get you off their mailing list far more effectively than a complaint ever would. Tell them you will keep sending back unsolicited material in the same way.

In the UK, the Mailing Preference Service can help knock junk mail on the head for free.

Another way of keeping your name off junk mail lists as well as the above is to do the following. All of this is public knowledge, but not as widely known as it should be. The UK government recently passed new legislation so that Electoral Register Offices have to publish two versions of the Electoral Register.

  1. The Full Register contains the name and address of every registered voter in the borough. Distribution is strictly limited to the political parties, court service, credit reference agencies and a couple of others. The law does not allow them to sell or pass copies on.

  2. The offices are also required to produce an Edited Register and they cannot refuse to sell it to anyone who wants a copy - mainly junk mail firms. The Edited Register contains the name and address of every registered voter in the Borough who has not opted out of being on it. When you received your annual registration form last September, you may have noticed a small box, which you had to tick in order to 'opt out'.

There are certain flaws in this system:

  • You probably noticed there's quite a lot of information on your annual registration form and it's easy to miss one little box.

  • A lot of people don't take the time to read the whole form if they are already registered - they just sign it and send it back.

  • The whole concept of a Full Register and an Edited Register is hard to get your head around, especially if English is not your first language.

If you aren't sure if you remembered to opt out when you filled in your form last September, phone your local Electoral Services Office (the easiest way is to call your local Council's main switchboard and ask them to put you through). They will be happy to check if you have opted out or not. If not, they will ask you to write them a short letter requesting it. Please don't be angry for not being able to do it over the phone. The government says the offices have to keep a written record of any changes you have requested to your entry in the Register.

If you're registering for the first time, be sure to tick the box that says you want to opt out. Staying off the Edited Register won't stop you getting junk mail altogether, because they have other ways of getting hold of your address, but it's a step in the right direction.

Treat People like People!

Beggars, chuggers, sales assistants, market researchers etc...always treat them with a good-humoured, polite response. Even if your response is 'No' - it's worth lengthening it to 'No thank you' - most people do respect this and many will often respond in a polite manner too.

When someone asks you for money, a simple 'I can't' or 'I'm sorry' costs you nothing. Rudely stalking past or snapping costs you your dignity. Begging is often not just about asking for money, it's about asking for social recognition or interaction and who are we to deny anyone this?

Also we must remember the adage, never crap on those below you on the social ladder, because you might meet them on your way down.

Wheelchair Etiquette

While four-wheel driving is an option for many, for some it is a way of life. So if you are unsure of the etiquette surrounding wheelchairs, read on...

  • If someone doesn't ask you to push them - Don't.

  • If you're going to hold the door open hold it wide open and move your feet back behind the door or they will get squished.

  • Don't assume that someone in a wheelchair is trying to get past you - occasionally wheelchair users like to browse in shops too. You won't believe the speed wheelchair users get through busy shops as people let them past when actually they're just trying to meander through.

  • If someone pokes you on the a**e don't turn round with that look of disgust on your face - just step out of the way.

  • Don't stand and talk over someone in a wheelchair and don't talk down to a wheelchair user. Instead squat down and don't bend over1.

  • Never ever pat a wheelchair user on the head or ruffle their hair... they've been known to bite.

  • If you come across someone who's fallen out of their chair (or been thrown out by a caring partner) either:

    • If you're very strong and confident you can lift a person easily, then scoop them up and put them back in their chair as quickly as possible. However, give them a chance to grab around your neck so as you don't take all of their weight through their armpits.

    • If there is any doubt that you can do the above, then offer them a hand gripped wrist-to-wrist and stop the wheelchair rolling away (put the brakes on or stick a foot behind a castor) - if necessary, grab hold of a belt.

  • If someone does ask for a push remember fully-grown adults weigh a lot more than a kid in a pushchair and remember that different wheelchairs act differently. Some are very 'tippy' and will do a spectacular wheelie (and flip over) very easily; others will require you to put a lot of weight on the back just to get over the lip on a dropped kerb.

  • If you want to help someone who's fallen out of their chair - ask them first, they might need more careful help than just a hoik back into the chair

Street Etiquette

With our pathways burgeoning under the weight of pedestrians, we should all pay heed to the following...

  • Don't meander along in the centre of the pavement, especially if holding hands with someone. Leave space for others walking faster to pass by.

  • If standing talking or at a bus stop, also leave space for passers-by.

  • A keep-to-the-right convention would be good to avoid those head-on encounters where you side-step in unison.

  • Please don't spit or discard chewing gum on the pavement.

Dark Streets

If you're a bloke (alone or with other blokes) and there's someone walking in front of you on her own and in the same direction/opposite direction as you, it's good etiquette to cross the road and walk on the other pavement if you think that there's even the slightest chance that your presence is even the tiniest bit intimidating to that other person. This is particularly relevant if the person is female or elderly.

Also, if you are out with any female company always make sure that they get home before heading home yourself - don't just leave them at a bus stop or train station. Make sure they get to their door. And if you are dropping a female companion off by car also ensure they are at their front door and safely inside before driving off.


This is always a tough one. There is the argument that since women have fought for equality, then they should not expect men to do anything extra for them. On the other hand there is a difference between men being chivalrous or courteous to women because women are weak/fragile little things with no minds of their own who must be protected, and men doing things for women because it is nice and they want to appear nice.

It does go without saying though that extra chivalry/courteousness should be offered to pregnant women. Those who do not immediately offer to give up their seats for them should be thrown off - after said pregnant woman has been allowed to get out all her frustration about swelling ankles, strange tastes, early morning vomiting, impending labour, etc out on them.

I like it when gentlemen hold the door open for me. I'm sorry, it is sexist, but I like and appreciate that level of courtesy. I don't assume that a man holding the door open for me believes I'm too weak and feeble to do so for myself. In return, all I can promise is I won't let the door slam back in his face (or anybody else's).

I cannot defend this position, so I won't try to. Gents, I appreciate the quandary you are in. But any woman who berates you for your courtesy is:

  • Overreacting
  • Aggressive
  • Rude

So, thank you to all men who have extended this courtesy to me in the past, and may it continue!

Modern Chivalry

What place is there for modern chivalry in an age of 'equality' and sexual litigation?

Modern chivalry does not have to be a man stepping back for a lady. Anybody can do the following:

  • Hold the door open for whoever is following them through. You could say 'especially those with lots of shopping, walking aids, buggies, children or parents to control' but really it's polite to do it for anybody. Why should the much stronger/fitter person than you behind have to open the door again when you could just hold it one second longer?

  • Give help to others getting off and on public transport - depending on the person, this might include helping them with cases, making sure they don't fall or even just making sure you aren't in the way of the first person in the queue. There's a selfish bit here - it hurries them up so you can get on more quickly, without making them feel as if they must hurry and get to the 'more haste, less speed' flustered state.

  • If you haven't had a hard day, give your seat to someone who has. This may be because they will naturally be tired (eg an elderly person or a heavily pregnant woman) or just because they look tired. Even young, fit men can have a hard day and be really tired at the end of it.

  • Don't assume you have a right to chivalry just because you're, say, female, pregnant, old, with a buggy, etc. It's more a give and get situation. If you expect chivalry, you should be chivalrous yourself.

  • And if you are on the receiving end of chivalry, be polite and say thank you and smile, even if you're very tired. Don't however expect the people you are chivalrous to thank you nicely, they might have a world on their shoulders which means they forget these little niceties.

Please and Thank You

When I was younger my mother always told that you catch more flies with sugar than vinegar. And she was right. Part of my job involves dealing with people under pressure - both suppliers and clients. If an item doesn't turn up on time and I have to chase a supplier I get far further with them if I say please at the beginning and thank them for their efforts afterwards. Also you tend to be remembered as a nice person which makes them more inclined to help you at a later date.

The other advantage of being polite is that when you do lose your temper or start getting stroppy then it is far more effective than going in all guns blazing. It does sound a rather manipulative, but it does make a potentially stressful situation more pleasant.

Always treat other people the way you would like to be treated. A smile, a kind word or a good deed costs nothing but would give you and the recipient a warm feeling in your heart. And a good heart is a healthy happy heart.

1Unless in this Researcher's hubby's case you're female and wearing a low-cut top

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Edited by

h2g2 Editors

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more