Manners really do make us – it could be that they are one of the keys to being human.

Scientists have suggested that good manners not only distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom, they help keep humans free of disease and underpin the co-operation that helps the world go round.

Dr Val Curtis, an expert on disease control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: ‘Manners should be up there with fire and language as a prime candidate for what makes us human.

‘Far from being an old-fashioned set of rules about which fork to use, manners are so important that they should be up there with fire and the invention of language as a prime candidate for what makes us human.’

She argues that the first, and most ancient function of manners, is to allow bacteria and virus-ridden humans socialise without falling ill. 

Writing in New Scientist, she added: ‘Although I’d like to hang around in case you have information or goods to exchange, it might be more sensible if I ran way because, to me, you are a walking bag of microbes. 

‘With every exhalation you might emit millions of influenza viruses and your handshake might transfer salmonella bacteria.

‘When we fail in these civilities, the disgust shown provokes shame and teaches us not to repeat the offence.

‘More intimate contact could give me hepatitis, syphilis or worse. 

‘You too, of course, make the same subconscious calculation.

‘So how can we get close enough to share the benefits but avoid sharing our microbes? This is the job of manners.’

Good manners stop us from standing so close to someone that we spray them with saliva as we speak.  

They also encourage us to keep ourselves and our homes clean and stop us from sharing food we have already bitten into.

The consequences of bad manners don’t end with falling ill.

Dr Curtis said: ‘If I fail in my manners, you may reject and ostracise me and refuse further collaboration, denying me access to the benefits of life as a member of an intensely social species. We play out a mannerly dance every day, getting close but not too close.

Culled from