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Unfortunately for the socialites, the New Yorkers had a spy in their midst: one Emily Post, whose 1922 book Etiquette revealed the secrets of good manners to the hoi polloi. It was a bestseller and said to have been a favorite among GIs during World War II, though it's hard to imagine now why they would have needed to understand the intricacies of where and when to leave a calling card, a subject to which Post devoted many, many pages.
The celebrated Emily Post passed on to the great dinner party in the sky in 1960. Today, her great granddaughter-in-law, Peggy Post, has assumed the mantle of good manners. "Peggy Post is just a figurehead," Everding sniffs. "She doesn't know manners. She says an e-mailed thank-you note is OK, that it's better than nothing."
"The present generation is at least ahead of some of its 'very proper' predecessors in that weddings do not have to be set for noon because a bridegroom's sobriety is not to be counted on later in the day!" — Emily Post, Etiquette
Though most etiquette experts march resolutely into the 21st century, faithfully updating their manuals to reflect societal changes like gay marriages, e-mail and cell phones, many still yearn for what they imagine must have been a more gracious past, when women did not take offense at having doors opened for them.
"We've just become more slovenly in the way we present ourselves to the world," says Patricia Tice. "We're too casual. I'm all for being casual and comfortable, but there's a time and a place to dress for the occasion." Melenie Broyles regrets that young people do not habitually refer to adults as "Mr." or "Mrs." anymore. "Respect is not taught in our generation," she says. "No one wants to feel old."
But in business, Maria Everding says, a woman should always be addressed as "Ms." "That way, you don't have to look up her social status, whether she's married," she explains. "If someone is old enough to be your parent, use the honorific, but never 'sir' or 'ma'am.' That's outdated and makes you sound servile."
Tice has launched a one-woman campaign to restore good manners in Iowa. "If a clerk in a store doesn't say thank you, I say, gently, 'You're welcome,' and then they say, 'Oh, thank you!' I've prayed for forgiveness for holding up the line, but no one should ever be too busy to say thank you. I will not shop at stores where the clerk will not say thank you." She will not, however, compile a list of these stores for her clients. "That would be unkind and ill-mannered."
"No one is ever too high and mighty to say thank you," Everding says. "And why do people say, 'No problem'? That's so stupid. It makes me want to say, 'Is it a problem?'"
A.C. Kemp, a lecturer in linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently published an anti-etiquette manual called The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion, under the guise of a dissolute socialite named Lady Arabella Snark. In preparation, she made a thorough study of etiquette guides. "If you don't know the particular expectations for how to behave," she explains, "you can't really be rude."
Kemp has formed her own conclusion about old-fashioned etiquette: "Older experts like Emily Post exist in a world where nobody lives," she says. "You think, 'Wow, people in 1900 must have been so polite,' and then you remember they had spittoons. Those books were totally divorced from reality."
Still, Kemp has also noticed a decline in manners, particularly among cell phone users. "My old methods for dealing with them don't work as well as they used to," she admits. "My previous strategy was to stop and look at them and make comments on their conversations. But now when I do that, people think I'm being rude." (Lady Snark, incidentally, recommends beating such people with the nearest blunt object.)
"The only time you should keep your phone on in company is if you're expecting a kidney," Everding counsels. "If you can't give someone 45 minutes of your time, why should they do business with you?"
Everding advocates violence in only one particular situation: "You should smack anyone who shakes hands with a woman by grabbing her fingers. You shake hands with a woman the same way you shake hands with a man, palm to palm. Every handshake should be firm. If your palm gets sweaty, rub it on your side or put it in your pocket."
Broyles and Tice report increased enrollments for children's etiquette classes. "The pendulum is swinging back," Tice says. "We have become so casual, it's translated to complacency, and people are getting annoyed."
Thus emboldened, Everding, Broyles and Tice continue their crusades to restore civility to daily life, though they admit that some rules, like dressing up on an airplane, have fallen by the wayside. "Just don't wear your lawn-mowing outfit," Broyles pleads.
"My favorite rule is send a thank-you note," Everding says. "There is nothing more gracious and kind than sending a note. Send it within 24 hours so your real feelings go into the note." Although Everding says e-mail has attained the same level of formality as a letter, she still recommends sending a handwritten note through the mail. "It's more personal."
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