Four years ago, I did a blog commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of etiquette expert Emily Post. On that anniversary, Vanity Fair polled 18 – 44 year-olds and found that forty percent of those queried had no idea who Emily Post was or why she was famous.
Emily Post would have turned 142 years old last week, so I'd like to do a bit of an update on that blog. She was born on October 27, 1872, in Baltimore, Maryland. At the time she was growing up, well-bred women were discouraged from working. By becoming the nation’s expert on manners as well as a self-made career woman with books, a syndicated newspaper column, and a network radio program, she defied the dictates of that time.
Society has changed quite a bit in the fifty-four 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, especially those fancy/formal occasions held in those many appropriate venues that are NOT air conditioned thus requiring that I carry my folding fan. :) Some of her other advice, however, is still relevant today.
Fashion: While her advice for men is no longer relevant—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, thankfully, a little more relevant. She said most women were fashion sheep, that they should take trends and personalize them.
Conversational Skills: This is something that seems to be eroding in today's society of instant communication consisting of 140 characters on Twitter. 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. Keep in mind that by "live performance" she was referring to the theater, opera, or the symphony. Rock concerts in massive arenas were still a long way off. Her two biggest rules are one hundred percent relevant today—shut up and be on time! And I'm sure in today's society she would have added turning off your cell phone.
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." She apparently didn't have a rule covering what to do if it was imperative to move that bundle from one place to another and you didn't have a man available to carry it. "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. What if she doesn't enjoy the conversation a man offered? :)
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 ninety-two 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."
Here are four more of Emily's thoughts on etiquette (and I'm sure she would cringe at my informal use of her first name when we had never even met let alone been friends):
1. "Never interlard your conversation with foreign words or phrases when you can possibly translate them into English; and the occasions when our mother tongue will not serve are extremely rare."
We all know someone who casually throws around the foreign phrases as an affectation we find very annoying.
2. "Who does not dislike a 'boneless' hand extended as though it were a spray of sea-weed, or a miniature boiled pudding? It is equally annoying to have one’s hand clutched aloft in grotesque affectation and shaken violently sideways, as though it were being used to clean a spot out of the atmosphere. What woman does not wince at the vise-like grasp that cuts her rings into her flesh and temporarily paralyzes every finger?”
A limp, dead fish handshake is definitely bad news. Also beware of the handshake ball (a gathering where everyone is constantly shaking hands with everyone else). That gets real old real soon.
3. "Lack of consideration for those who in any capacity serve you, is always an evidence of ill-breeding, as well as of inexcusable selfishness."
This includes such things as the man who yells at the taxi driver or the woman who brusquely dismisses a waiter or waitress as a nobody. In Emily Post’s eyes, that type of action labels the person as definite low life and still applies 100% today. Don’t be that person.
4. "Life, whether social or business, is a bank in which you deposit certain funds of character, intellect and heart; or other funds of egotism, hard-heartedness and unconcern; or deposit—nothing! And the bank honors your deposit, and no more. In other words, you can draw nothing out but what you have put in."
Many of the world’s most successful people are simply committed to service. Figure out what you want from the world. If you expect to get it, be prepared to first give it.