‘Emily Post’s Etiquette’ Review: Please and Thank You

From The Wall Street Journal:

A century ago, American manners and social mores were in exciting disarray. Old formalities were in retreat. Young women were bobbing their hair and slouching on purpose. The comparatively cavalier practice of “dating” was replacing traditional courtship. Domestic life, meanwhile, could at any moment be interrupted by a ringing telephone, a newish gizmo that it might be rude to answer—at mealtimes, say—but also rude to ignore.

Into this Jazz Age ferment stepped Emily Post, the writer and socialite whose name became a byword for the arbitration of questions of manners and civility. Post’s 1922 book, “Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home,” was a godsend to the discombobulated. The aspirational American public, with its great jostling of new citizens and new money, had developed a taste for etiquette primers, and here was an author who could equip readers to move with confidence at the highest levels. The socially adept could read Emily Post for confirmation (and to check their conduct for weak points). Rubes and arrivistes could read her and feel a little less raw and exposed.

The real genius of the woman, though—and surely the reason she caught on—was that she so beautifully linked outward gentility with inner goodness. To read the original Emily Post is to want to be a better person: to stand a bit straighter, to treat others with humor and benignity, and to carry oneself with more grace and less affectation. “Simple people put no trimmings on their phrases, nor on their manners,” Post wrote in her direct way. “But remember, simplicity is not crudeness nor anything like it. On the contrary, simplicity of speech and manners means language in its purest, most limpid form, and manners of such perfection that they do not suggest ‘manners’ at all.”

Etiquette” has been repeatedly updated and republished over the decades, so it makes ample commercial sense for those charged with guarding Emily Post’s legacy to come to the topic afresh at the centenary mark. It also makes cultural sense. Now, as when the book came out, American culture is in turmoil. We still have some memory of former strict codes of politeness, but only just. Hosts and hostesses still issue invitations to parties, as of old, but many recipients no longer feel obliged to respond—or to keep their commitments when the day comes. Technology has reshaped modes of communication and disinhibited the national id. As of old, too, the young follow codes that bewilder their elders; their elders worry that the center cannot hold and that things are falling apart.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

1 thought on “‘Emily Post’s Etiquette’ Review: Please and Thank You”

  1. Once upon a time, I would have loved to read Flight-Line Etiquette, as Explained by Miss Emily Post. There would be at least one full chapter on grammatically correct uses of Anglo-American profanity, and another entitled “Proper Pencil-Whipping Procedure and Its Uses.” (Which is a perhaps-too-snide-and-subtle way of pointing out just how limited the contexts of what Ms Post proclaims as “polite” and appropriate to Society really are.)

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