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A Little Formality Adds a Civil Tone To the Casual '90s

Anyone who has ever sputtered silently at the sight of fellow diners wearing body-baring T-shirts and baseball caps in a good restaurant might take heart from a new policy being adopted by various hotels in Britain. Tired of complaints from a growing number of guests about "scruffy and unkempt" patrons, managers are reintroducing dress codes, those seemingly quaint artifacts of an earlier era when eating out meant following basic rules of decorum, such as: Don't go to a nice restaurant looking as if you just finished changing the oil in your car.

Nearly half of the three-star hotels responding to a survey by the British Hospitality Association say they are banning tattoos and unconventional haircuts. Although they aren't insisting that customers must always wear a jacket and tie, their "no riff-raff" policies draw the line at football jerseys and T-shirts.

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Would-be patrons who have been refused service because of their appearance have not been amused, to put it mildly. But other customers have expressed appreciation and support, hoteliers say.

Britain has no corner on sloppiness and declining standards, of course. On this side of the Atlantic, pollster Daniel Yankelovich finds that Americans are tired of daily "small indignities" that signal a lack of respect and a loss of civility. As a result, he says, an overwhelming majority now rank the issue of respect second only to family values in its importance on the nation's cultural agenda.

Elsewhere, other signs also point to the possibility that higher standards of conduct may be poised to make a comeback. American teenagers, concerned about their safety, have told interviewers for a new survey that they want stricter rules in schools.

That wish will soon become a reality in Britain. This week, government curriculum advisers are putting finishing touches on an official blueprint to improve behavior and promote good manners among young people.

Concerned about the rise of an "impolite" society throughout Western countries, Nick Tate, the chief executive of the curriculum authority, laments the disappearance of the idea that manners are important. In reality, he says, schools, communities, and families cannot survive without good manners.

The blueprint for behavior represents the collective effort of 150 business leaders, clergy, parents, teachers, and police. Schools will also have greater authority to reject students whose parents refuse to sign contracts assuring their children's "good behavior."

As Mr. Tate has noted, "If you do not have rules about what is acceptable and unacceptable, people have great difficulty deciding what to do and what not to do."

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Manners and codes of proper behavior and dress have typically had a trickle-down effect, with the educated and elite setting standards that others seek to emulate. That is no longer always true.

The new philosophy often involves trickle-up behavior. In language, the coarse vocabulary of gangsta rap now appears regularly in the glossy pages of The New Yorker and even on the tongues of men and women with lofty degrees and impressive job titles. And in dress, what was once the uniform of day laborers - jeans and T-shirts - has been adopted by nearly everyone, including the rich, for nearly all occasions.

In a time of extreme informality and what some culture-watchers call "expressive individualism," any swing back to more conservative styles and behavior will not be easy or quick. This is, after all, the age of "casual Friday" in the workplace, an era when casualness does have its place, even if sloppiness doesn't.

It would be naive to claim an automatic relationship between manners and morals - there are too many cads who know their etiquette. But at least, the two do connect. After all, the idea behind manners is to imitate true consideration. To that extent, these dress codes and "good behavior contracts" may represent a start toward making an "impolite" society less so.

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