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A headshot photograph of William Hanson in an ornate photo frame

'You can't say thank you enough': William Hanson on his obsession with etiquette and politeness

Image Credit: (Photo Frame) | Photograph: William Hanson / | Above: A photograph of William Hanson

Britain’s Greatest Obsessions sees a host of top celebrities explore uniquely British preoccupations and passions in an attempt to find out what makes the British tick.

In each episode, one celebrity guest presenter undertakes a journey through British culture and history, to find out how and why these particular subjects have become so embedded in our collective psyche and national identity.

American comedian Reginald D Hunter takes a thought-provoking trip through history to explore the origins of the class system and how it continues to infuse all areas of British life. Sky HISTORY caught up with etiquette expert William Hanson, who helped Reginald on his learning journey, to find out more about why being polite and having good manners is such an important part of British culture.

Britain's Greatest Obsessions continues on Monday, 10th October at 10pm on Sky HISTORY.

How did you become the UK’s leading etiquette expert?

It was all completely by accident. My maternal grandmother gave me a book on etiquette for Christmas when I was 12 because she thought I was a rough, precocious child. I know it’s hard to believe!

I thought it was quite a fun book, but it posed lots of questions. I wanted to know why we did certain things, so I started reading and collecting more books without any great fanfare.

Then, when I was 16 or 17, one of my teachers came up to me and said they just needed someone to teach the younger years how to set a table. It wasn’t really my job, but I said ‘Okay’ and started to do that, and no-one’s stopped me since.

Why is having proper etiquette seen as distinctly British behaviour?

I think we are a fairly restrained nation. We may not be the most stylish and we may not have the best food, but what we do have is generally the greatest quantity of restraint. Of course, we have the Royal Family who likes to keep Britishness up and they are, by and large, very good representatives of the UK.

What was it like working with Reginald D Hunter on Britain’s Greatest Obsessions as an American man who’s lived in the UK for some time?

Americans are always very good at sparing the pomposity of Brits and they are able to mock us as our closest ally, but also as our number one enemy, in that sort of weird way. With Reginald, because he has been over here for so long, he can arbitrate between the American and British ways of doing things. It was great fun being able to take the mick out of each other while having a nice cup of tea.

Having proper etiquette is widely seen as a characteristic of the upper classes, but how can it be utilised at every level of the class structure?

There is a danger that everyone thinks etiquette is just for the top classes, whether you define that by family history or money. But etiquette is just about treating people nicely, so you can be from any country, from any division within that country and no-one is exempt from treating people nicely.

Etiquette evolves into the society that it is surrounding. In my day-to-day work, or even on Britain’s Greatest Obsessions with Reginald, I’m not telling people how to behave in the time of Henry VIII because that’s completely irrelevant to people’s modern lives.

There is an etiquette that appears for any form of human interaction, it’s not just about how to address an archbishop during Lent.

In the Victorian era, men would burp at the end of a meal to show that the cook had suitably fed them. Thank God we’ve finessed that out of polite society.

What small changes can people make to their everyday life if they want to start improving their overall etiquette?

You can't say ‘thank you’ enough. I’m a great believer in the more you say ‘thank you’, the better life is. Even if you met up with someone for a coffee and you paid, you can still thank them for their company and for making time for you.

If someone holds a door open for you, just say ‘thank you’. That is step number one in any quest to become more polite.

If you could go back in time to any point in history, what would that be and why?

I would go back to Louis XIV’s time when he had just built his Palace of Versailles. The word ‘etiquette’ goes back to old French and Louis XIV was all for very strict protocol. I would like to witness him imposing some of the earlier forms of French protocol on his court and see how they reacted.

William Hanson is the co-host of the 'Help I Sexted My Boss' podcast.