- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006

BURLINGTON, Vt.

Inside a plain enough country club restaurant nestled in this Champlain Valley college town, the latest crimes against the laws of social etiquette are being committed during the Monday lunch hour.

For at one table a 56-year-old man dressed in white golf shirt, zip-up fleece and rumpled khakis is hunched over a hot cup of beef barley soup, taking slurps with such alarming speed you wonder whether he should wear a seat belt.

This is not his only infraction. His elbows are resting right there on the table. And before food ever came, fork, spoon and knife were all crowded on one side of his plate, huddled over there like passengers on the port side of a starboard-listing ship.

What on earth would Emily Post say?

Well, ask the soup slurper: He is Peter Post, great-grandson of the woman who, 46 years after her death, still reigns in the cultural consciousness as the unchallenged arbiter of thank-you notes, wedding receiving lines and how to fold a formal napkin.

And along with various other descendants and in-laws of the matriarch, he presides over a booming empire of etiquette — books, magazine columns, corporate seminars, podcasts, a torrent of media interviews, all in the Emily Post name.

All the while the family is trying to shake the traditional image of etiquette — a Byzantine set of because-she-said-so strictures no more relevant to daily life than the rules of Olympic curling.

What the Post family wants — as you fork over $19.95 for its latest book or make another hit on its Web site (www.emilypost.com) — is for you to think of etiquette as a way to bring a little respect and consideration into an increasingly square-shouldered world.

So never mind that Peter Post is hurtling through his soup course. He is the law in these parts.

The nucleus of the Post dynasty is a place called the Emily Post Institute, housed in a red-brick former schoolhouse on a quiet street in Burlington.

Etiquette is a sort of language, and the people who work here are constantly redefining it, responding to changing trends in society, sometimes reluctantly letting go when a rule once inviolable becomes archaic, even quaint.

They do this mostly by publishing books — etiquette for couples. For men. For children. For parents. For weddings. For business. And the 896-page omnibus “Emily Post’s Etiquette,” which had its 17th edition in 2004.

But fascinatingly, they also do it by navigating an ever-shifting river of modern etiquette questions. You can submit them through EmilyPost.com, and get your answer (promptly, of course) in two weeks. Etiquette’s answer to the Butterball Hotline.

Examples:

• How early can you call someone at home for business purposes? (A: 9 a.m.)

• If finances restrict you to having a cash bar at your wedding, how should you signal that on your invitation? (A: You shouldn’t. Either have a small open bar of beer and wine that is within your budget or have no bar at all.)

• Can I use a computer to address my wedding invitations? (A: Nope. Too impersonal.)

• And this: If I marry John Doe III, does that make me Mrs. John Doe? Or Mrs. John Doe III? And if John Doe Sr. passes away, does John Doe Jr. become John Doe Sr. (A: No, yes, no.)

“That one’s pretty esoteric,” says Tricia Post, wife of Peter, who manages a group of five persons, known as Emily’s Army, charged with answering these questions. “Then again I’ve probably seen it three or four times.”

Many of these questions come from, say, panicked wedding planners or young men trying to make a good impression at a first dinner with a girlfriend’s parents. (Whoever invites picks up the check.)

And then there are people like the woman who wrote asking exactly how rude it was that a friend had failed to bring a bottle of wine to dinner. Or the one who demanded a ruling against a sister-in-law who dressed less than conservatively for a funeral.

“They’re basically asking us to confirm their opinion,” Mrs. Post says. “We try not to give them fodder and fuel the family fight. I think people are quick to take offense when none really need be taken.”

Which brings us to America circa 2006, a place of snippy blogs, pundit shouting matches on cable TV, brawling parents of T-ball players, roadways packed with drivers who have spring-loaded middle fingers and anger to spare.

Seven in 10 Americans think people are ruder today than they were 20 or 30 years ago, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken late last year. And more than 90 percent blame parents for failing to teach their children how to act.

In another poll this past spring, three-quarters of people surveyed said they frequently or occasionally encounter profanity in public. And two-thirds said it’s worse now than 20 years ago.

You might think this is all good news for a business trying to show people how to behave. And it is. But the Posts are not so sure we are living in the end times of civility.

Cindy Post Senning, a former elementary school principal and great-granddaughter of Emily Post who handles the institute’s books for children, says people often confuse a trend toward less formality in society with a decline in manners.

“I think it’s just the intensity and the pace of life today,” she says. “I think it’s just — we have to make some choices. We can’t do everything we want to. Like checking your BlackBerry all the time. People say, ‘Well, I’m just checking my schedule.’ Well, nobody knows you’re checking your schedule.”

There are already 10 Emily Post books in print, with more on the way: Last fall the institute signed a deal with HarperCollins to produce nine new manners books for children.

Columns by Peggy Post, Emily Post’s great-granddaughter-in-law, appear regularly in Good Housekeeping and Parents magazines, reaching tens of millions of readers. Peter Post writes a weekly Etiquette at Work column for the Boston Globe.

“Emily Post’s The Etiquette Advantage in Business,” published last year, has become a top seller among business books, offering advice for the office. (Stay away from powerful colognes during job interviews. And never, ever wear a tank top to work.)

In addition, Peter Post travels the country to conduct seminars for employers desperate to teach their workers e-mail etiquette and manners for business meals, pocketing $6,000 for a day’s visit to small groups alone.

He imagines books of etiquette advice for people in their 20s, perhaps dealing with a messy roommate for the first time. For golfers. Or for grandparents wondering how much spoiling is too much.

“We want to have them with Emily Post from the time they’re born to the time they die,” he says.


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