Have you been listening to the Awesome Etiquette podcast? Actual great-great-grandchildren of Emily Post Herself continue her legacy in the 21st century, interpreting etiquette “through the lens of consideration, honesty, and respect.” They will shortly commence work on the 20th (!) edition of their great-great-grandmother’s most famous book to be released for the 2022 centennial of the first edition. Dan Post Senning asked "for a little bit of help: to think about what the Emily Post tradition means to you . . . your reflections on how that tradition is meaningful and relevant.” This is Etiquetteer’s attempt to respond to that appeal.
To do that, we need to go back in time about 45 years or so to a little Southern boy with no Southern accent, who was taught daily (and took seriously) how important it was to Be Good and Mind Your Manners . . . only to live in a world where no one else was held to the same standard. When you want only to be accepted, but are mocked for liking reading more than sports — where you just don’t fit in — well, you have to find a retreat. One day that little boy discovered his mother's 1950 edition of Emily Post, and it became his safe space. Nothing bad can happen with Emily.
For the uninitiated, Mrs. Post didn’t just make lists of rules, of “you are good if you do this and bad if you do that.” She told stories with characters who had funny names* about what happened when things did, or didn’t, go well. “How a Dinner Can Be Bungled” tells the story of Mrs. Newwed, who has all the equipment, but not the wisdom, to give a formal dinner. The results are a disaster. “The House of Perfection” brings us the new wife of an old friend of the Oldnames. Her husband gives her misleading advice about how to prepare for a weekend at their home, and illustrates with his ignorance just what Good Taste really is. Mrs. Post takes us through house party weekends, weddings held in churches and simple homes, debutante dances, card parties, even breakfast in bed. Just like any storybook for children, her stories create a magic land far away where everything is beautiful, everyone behaves nicely and there is no taunting or teasing or backstabbing. Who wouldn’t want to go to a place like that?**
This all sounds very rarified, doesn’t it? So why is Emily Post still relevant? Because people are still, still hurt by the bad behavior of others, and they need a refuge. They need reassurance that they are doing their best, have value in the larger social framework — that they matter!
The situation has changed in the 21st century, of course. The social patterns of the rich are no longer considered the automatic criteria to which to turn. The dinner party is no longer the cornerstone of American social life. Traditions other than those of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are valued and celebrated much more than hitherto, providing a richer, sometimes contradictory, palette of etiquette. And the 21st-century ascendance of social media has given the Rude and Hateful an ever-louder platform from which to spew their rejection of Perfect Propriety — and set an irresistible Bad Example for so many others.
Questions about etiquette have changed since Mrs. Post’s day. Instead of “What can I do to behave well?” 21st-century etiquette questions are more likely to be “How can I deal with other people who are not behaving well?” For instance, Mrs. Post never had to deal with riders of public transit with loud earbuds - or no earbuds at all. Her descendants, happily, have adapted the Emily Post Tradition perfectly to this change, assuring their ancestress’s continued value to American life.
*So many etiquette writers, including Etiquetteer, also give their characters funny names, but Mrs. Post was the first.
**As a grownup, Etiquetteer discovered the first edition which included “The House Party in Camp,” or what happens when a gentleman brings his valet (even when he knows he is not supposed to) to a “rustic" camp weekend. How on earth can Mrs. Worldly survive without her maid to do her hair every day?