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Politeness and civility

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British social etiquette might be famed for its liberal use of please and thank you, but civility is very much a European import, according to John Gallagher, professor of Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. As courtiers visited the French and Italian courts in the 16th century they not only learnt new languages but new rules of behaviour too. As the century progressed civility began to be weaponised as travellers sought to distinguish themselves from the ‘barbarous’ foreigners.

The lexicographer and Countdown regular Susie Dent explains the etymology of terms like civilised, polite and barbarous. And she explores changing tastes in what is deemed impolite: in the Middle Ages the biggest taboo was any profanity that used the Lord’s name in vain, whilst the words we consider the most offensive today were commonplace.

For years Professor Louise Mullany has been studying the prevalence and power of politeness in our everyday speech and actions. In her book, Polite: The Art of Communication at Home, at Work and in Public she uncovers the unwritten rules of behaviour, exploring the gender and generational differences, the art of the political apology, and whether politeness standards really are declining.

The comedian and impressionist Matt Forde unpicks the argument that satirical shows like Spitting Image have contributed to the perceived lack of civility in politics. For his latest podcast, The Political Party, he is aiming to behave impeccably as he interviews a candidate from all 650 constituencies before the general election.

Producer: Katy Hickman

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