A modern manners how-to

With bated breath, once more I traverse the subject of contemporary civilities. It is hairy territory; a truth rammed home when I last dared broach the complexities of etiquette in this smart-casual world of smart phones.

In another column I made the mistake of bad-mouthing a man who sprayed me with the green-curry prawns he was eating with his hands. I was hanged, drawn and quartered. Readers wrote in outraged. And rightfully so.

That repulsed was I by the coconut milk coming my way, I had overlooked the fact a good chunk of the world's population eat every meal with their hands.

I was suitably chastised, but after much introspection and a little self-flagellation I have decided there is enough water under the bridge to revisit modern manners.

• You are in the international aisle of your local Countdown, deliberating whether jalapenos and smoked chipotles would be excessive for your Tuesday night nachos; or you are at the beach, contemplating your unruly bikini line and whether you are game to discard your lava-lava.

Anyhow, you are happy, relaxed and, most importantly, a million miles from the office, when you spot that nice Jerry from accounts, or Erica who sits in the cubicle adjacent to yours.

You are momentarily taken aback. The context is all wrong. And in your confusion at the incongruity you greet them with a clumsy cheek kiss. Perhaps a fumbled hug.

You spend eight hours a day, five days a week with Jerry and Erica, yet you have never kissed them before. Hell, you don't even always say hello. And now you have unwittingly raised the bar in your interactions.

But what goes on out of the office should stay out of the office. Don't feel you have to kiss Jerry when you see him in the lunch room on Monday. There is no need to embrace Erica in the loos.

• At a party someone asks you what you do for a job. You reply in great depth, providing a full and fleshed-out curriculum vitae. Around a dinner table the talk turns to romance and the friend of the friend sitting opposite asks how you met your partner. Well, you begin, it's a long story...

It's flattering, right? Validating. It makes you feel good that others are taking an interest in you. In your life. But now it's your turn. Go on, do it. Ask them a question.

• Perhaps you work in retail or for a telemarketing company. No doubt you've been instructed to engage with the customer. By all means greet them warmly, but if you don't actually know them from a bar of soap, best not ask them how they are. Because the thing is, you don't really want to know that their husband has just left them for the guy next door, or that they just got promoted to North Island operations manager, do you?

• "How R U," asks the text. "Gr8," you respond. "Let's catch up." "Sounds good." "Cool." "Talk soon." "Yeah, definitely :)" "Xxx"

You have made the bare minimum of social contact, the most negligible plan to actually see each other in person and neither party could work out when to terminate the exchange. This does not count as a friendship.

Speaking of "xxx", we need to be more judicious in our employment. Not every text or email requires one. I am guilty of this.

Previously only used at the end of a letter or a birthday card, where presumably if you were taking the time to put pen to paper you enjoyed a degree of closeness with the recipient, now we are indiscriminate in our use.

I end texts to my son's music teacher with a chirpy "x", a man who I like very much but scarcely know. Recently I caught myself about to sign off a message to the plumber with an "x". Thankfully good sense reined me in before I gave him the idea I wanted more than my drain plunged.

The trouble is, there's no alternative. Putting nothing feels terse; and an emoticon puerile. I fear, too, that by kiss-kissing every man and his dog, we have cheapened the humble "xxx". It has become almost insulting to conclude a note to a loved one in such a hackneyed fashion.

• You are at a friend's for dinner. You have been well fed and watered, and before you lies the aftermath of your feasting. Your host makes a move to start clearing the table. After all, it is late and they have to ferry the kids to soccer first thing."Relax," you say.

Don't tell them to relax.

If they'd relaxed your glass wouldn't have been regularly topped up with that chilled pinot gris. If they'd relaxed you wouldn't have just enjoyed those bruschetta with homemade tapenade, or that rabbit pappardelle.

If they just relaxed you wouldn't be about to partake of their excellent limoncello tiramisu.

In fact, if you tell them to relax just one more time, they might punch you square in the face.

Sunday Magazine