Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fifty Years After Emily Post

Fifty years ago this week, etiquette expert Emily Post died. In a recent Vanity Fair poll of 18 – 44 year-olds, forty percent of those queried had no idea who Emily Post was or why she was famous.

Society has changed quite a bit in the fifty years since her death. So, how relevant are Emily Post's etiquette rules to modern life in today's fast paced society of five second sound bites, social media, and instant global communication?

Some of the topics she covered in her 1922 book, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, seem totally irrelevant today. Subjects such as one of my favorites—how to keep your fan, gloves, and napkin on your lap at fancy dinner parties. That skill has always been a stumbling block for me at the many fancy dinner parties I routinely attend. :) Some of her other advice, however, is still relevant today.

Fashion: For men she recommended suits for everywhere and all occasions except what she referred to as "the country." When on a country outing, breeches and polished leather riding boots were acceptable. Her thoughts on female style are more relevant. She said most women were fashion sheep, that they should take trends and personalize them.

Conversational Skills: After you dismiss all the complicated stuff about when to doff a hat or curtsy, a lot of her advice is still common sense today. Things such as—will what you have to say be interesting to those around you, don't repeat yourself, let other people talk, and don't pretend to know more than you do.

At a Live Performance: Her book has lots of advice about things like how to dress and whether it's acceptable for a woman to attend with a man who is not her husband. Bear in mind that she was referring to the theater, opera, or the symphony. Her two biggest rules are one hundred percent relevant today—shut up and be on time!

Introductions: She apparently loved all the formalities of meeting new people, presenting calling cards, and how to properly address each other. In today's society it's very common for people to know each other even without having been properly introduced face-to-face. We're friends on Facebook, I saw your video on YouTube, I read your tweet. I imagine that would have thrown Emily into quite a tizzy. :)

Mustn't: Emily Post had lots of mustn'ts. Here are a couple of examples. "A lady mustn't carry a bundle of anything on the streets, but if she has to, a man must carry it for her." "If a man doesn't enjoy the conversation a lady has offered, a woman mustn't be offended, but rather keep fishing for topics he might find agreeable." This sort of reminds me of that magazine article from the mid 1950s about how to be a good wife. Definitely advice to make today's woman cringe. :)

Houses: Her advice in this area seems the most outdated and indicates that her advice was apparently a luxury for the wealthy. She advised that a house must have servants on hand to collect a visitor's things when they visit.

It's easy to make fun of etiquette rules published eighty-eight years ago, but Emily Post's most basic rule is as necessary today as it was back then. "Never do anything that is unpleasant to others."


Cara Bristol said...

I think the specifics of etiquette change over time, but the need for etiquette does not. It serves a purpose: to make people feel comfortable and to help people get along with each other.

Can you imagine what Emily Post would say about cell phone usage and texting?

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

I think 'be on time' is the greatest advice you can give someone!

Keena Kincaid said...

Your post made me think, Samantha. Though we don't use "calling cards" on FB, Twitter and other social sites, I think the idea of being polite and introducing oneself still hold. All that's changed in the format.

Samantha Gentry said...

Cara: You're right, the specifics and circumstances of etiquette are certainly different today than they were, but that does not mean we don't need guidelines.

I think today's cell phone useage and texting would have Emily spinning in her grave. :)

Samantha Gentry said...

Julia: I agree about being on time, especially for things like the theater where squeezing down a row of already seated people disturbs both the audience and the performers.

Samantha Gentry said...

Keena: "Friending" on Facebook and other similar situations are certainly today's version of polite introductions.

Maria said...

While some of her advice is not relevant to our time, I think the biggest thing that Emily Post tried to convey is that we need to think about what makes someone else comfortable - whether it's conversational or physical. I hate when I go to a restaurant to eat and converse with friends and can't really enjoy the evening because the rude person at the table next to us is talking at the top of his/her lungs on a cell phoen that rings nonstop during the meal. I also hate when people I've just met spend the entire time we are together talking about themselves and don't even ask how I'm doing. There are more modern versions of her book that have been done by her family members and I find that their advice is more relevant to our time :)

Margaret West said...

I must be born out of time because I rather like Emily Posts advice. Oh to go back to the days when gentlemen left calling cards and people were not in 'open' relationships, whatever that is, just seeing each other or the best one of all (in the modern world, not mine)we just have sex together...arghhhh, give me Emily's idea of behaviour any day lol

Samantha Gentry said...

Maria: I hear you on the nonstop cell phone conversations in a restaurant. Very annoying! As for people who can't stop talking about themselves long enough to even extend the common courtesy of inquiring as to how I am...I find no reason to waste my time being the unacknowledged audience for their monologue.

Samantha Gentry said...

Margaret: Fortunately or unfortunately, today's fast-paced society doesn't seem to allow for the time and atmosphere in which calling cards were presented on silver trays. Perhaps some kind of happy middle ground between what was and what is would be a nice place to be.

Christine London said...

The mores of the times may change. Thank heavens we are not bound by the patriarchal rules of our predecessors. Yet the basic tenants of thinking of others and their comfort are timeless. It is in these areas that we seem to fall down with our rush to---rush. We all seem to become invisible when hidden in a digital world. The flesh and blood person with living breathing emotions does not come through a text or email. It is now more than ever we could all do with reminding ourselves that each electronic message has a real person on the other end. The person sitting across the table from you is more immediate than the one on the other end of the text line. Live in the here and now!
Thanks for the post Samantha.
Christine London