Etiquette Isn’t Everything, No Matter What Emily Post Says

We no longer live in a world where a maladroit seating chart is a crisis and one maintains only the correct friendships.
Illustration by Cynthia Kittler

Good manners matter to me. I always smile at my co-workers when we pass each other in the hallway; I look at my cell phone during a meeting only if I’m expecting an urgent message; and I listen to music with headphones, set to a low volume so as not to disturb my seatmates in our open-plan office. I thought I was doing fine.

Then I read the 19th edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette (William Morrow, $45) and realized my many, many failings. For instance, when I get someone’s business card, I almost always throw it in my purse. Apparently, I should be putting it in the business card holder I don’t have and treating it “as an extension of the person” who gave it to me. I’ve also never sent a handwritten thank-you note to any of my parents’ friends who’ve treated me to lunch, and I don’t generally proofread casual emails I send to co-workers.

All of these niceties and more are covered in the new guide, the first to have extensive discussion of “Life Online,” as well as “Open Office Courtesies,” “When It’s Okay to Send an Emailed Thank-you Note” (only if it’s to someone you interact with regularly or speed is of the essence), and “Agreeing to Disagree,” aka How Not to Alienate Colleagues by Talking About Politics. Much of the new advice is straightforward, even obvious—“Intentionally making disparaging remarks has no place in personal communications, and it has no place online, either”—but then again, I’m a millennial, and online behavior comes more naturally to me than to some others.

The rest of the new edition is mostly tried-and-true advice that’s remained so since Emily Post published the original Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home in 1922. I’m not frequently in the position to entertain associates over dinner, but if I ever find myself there, I’ll know to have a seating plan in mind before we arrive at the restaurant and to wait until the entrees are cleared before turning the conversation to official matters.

Such practiced graces are all well and good, and I’m sure they’d be appreciated by many, but I kept having to suppress the same thought while reading: Does this really matter? In their introduction to the guide, Post’s great-great-grandchildren Lizzie Post and Daniel Post Senning affirm that they want the book “to speak to traditional etiquette fans as well as those new to Emily Post—on the one hand reaffirming the values and manners of previous generations, while at the same time promoting the best practices of current society.” In other words, I’m their target audience. And yet, I read the guide with a degree of defiance. So what if I sometimes leave one side of my headphones on when my boss asks me a question? He does it, too.

According to her obituary in the New York Times, Post once declared that “[e]tiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is the code of sportsmanship and of honor. It is ethics.” That’s an admirably democratic credo, but it’s undercut by the idea of a codified set of social rituals. Post could be as precise as she was because she was describing a circumscribed world, one in which everyone believed in the importance of a seating chart at a formal dinner and having the proper stationery for thank-you notes. Our world requires more flexibility—less prescribing, more generalizing. Much of the “Social Networks” section of “Life Online” could’ve been boiled down to one simple directive: Think before you post.

That said, in the guide’s 674 pages, I didn’t catch a single typo, which I found impressive. Clearly, they proofread thoroughly.

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