at the Emily
A F T E R PA R K I NG
Post Institute in Burlington,
Vermont, I check my teeth in the
mirror, make sure my hair isn’t
sticking out, and brush potato-
chip crumbs off my lap. I’m Seven Posts currently work there full-
time, comprising more than half of the
about to meet Anna Post, great- employee roster. Anna and her younger
sister, Lizzie, both in their twenties,
represent the youngest generation, and
great-granddaughter of Emily the one that will take the Post manners
juggernaut well into this cantankerous
Post, the woman who did for century. Anna has served as a spokes-
person for the Web phone service
Skype and for Hyatt Place hotels, telling
American manners what Noah people how to be polite to each other
in their phone calls and travels. She her-
Webster did for dictionaries. self travels a couple dozen times a year,
conducting business politeness semi-
nars, teaching brides the formalities,
Not that Anna or any other Post would and doing media interviews. She’s living
stoop to humiliate anyone. Their mis- proof that in our lives and business, eti-
sion in life is to put everyone at ease, quette is alive and well.
and make everyone put everyone else Either that or she’s living proof that
at ease. But I don’t know that yet. I’ve we all desperately need some.
even borrowed my wife’s Prius, the
politest car in America, instead of driv- W H E N I WA L K through the door of the
ing my own beat-up, reeking SUV. Can’t Institute—a suite of brick-walled offices
be too careful, I think. I have a lot to in a former school building—I startle at
learn. (As we shall see, it turns out that the sight of several dogs of the Labrador
you can be too careful.) and German Shepherd variety. Would
The Emily Post Institute authors Emily Emily have approved? Still, I’ve never
Post’s indispensable Etiquette, now in seen politer dogs. One black lab rises to
its 17th edition, along with books on a sitting position and pants in greeting.
business manners, manners for men, It waits hopefully for me to pat it on the
and coping strategies for brides and head. I wonder if the Posts also have this
young singles. It’s a family business: effect on humans.
100 | Spirit
Emily Posed Anna
bears the portrait,
and genes, of her
Anna comes out of her office with because they’re unaware or because beets in a restaurant. “Emily Post would
the sort of smile someone gives an old they feel justified,” she says. “‘I’m run- eat her beets!” the grandmother said.
friend. Tall, dark-haired young women ning late because my sitter was late so Anna says she responded by throwing
like Anna never smile at a guy like me I’m going to cut you off.’ Or, ‘I didn’t up on her dinner plate. You have to love
unless I’ve given them a big tip in a res- sleep well.’” Talk about sympathy. this woman.
taurant. As she introduces me around, Anna herself grew up in a family When Anna was in elementary
I get a warmer reception than I have at that ensured she would never, ever be school, an occasional student would
some weddings. They all have perfect unaware. When she was a little girl her tease her on the playground by mak-
posture, great smiles, direct eye contact, Aunt Peggy asked what she wanted to ing slurping noises with an imaginary
firm but not crushing handshakes, and, be when she grew up, and she said, “I spoon. After graduating from the Uni-
most of all, an interest in their visitor— want to be Emily Post.” Not that she was versity of Vermont, Anna went to work
or at least the appearance of it. the perfect little lady herself. Her grand- for Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy in
All that can be taught, but then I mother once tried to make Anna eat Washington. A job at the Motion Pic-
notice something deeper. Early on in
our conversation, Anna and I are talking
about rudeness in movie theaters when Anna, Lizzie, and
she brings up a good example. “I saw father Peter pro-
March of the Penguins,” she says, “and fessionally put
people at ease
there was a woman in the row in front of from their Ver-
me filing her nails with an emery board. mont HQ (left).
She probably had OCD.” Talk about
sympathy for others: Some woman adds
a rasp rasp rasp to the cute-penguin
soundtrack, and Anna manages to spec-
ulate that the obnoxious jerk has a psy-
chological condition. “People are rude
Emily and her descendents
are right. Etiquette is not
about the rules. It’s about
adaptation to any environ-
ment. Survival of the ﬁttest.
102 | Spirit
ture Association of America followed,
until the call of etiquette drew her back
to Vermont. Anna has big ideas for
the Post Institute, involving etiquette
Are You Polite
around the world. She embraces the
Web; both Anna and Lizzie keep blogs.
Enough for Business?
Test your etiquette prowess. (Answers adapted from The
T H E P O S T W HO B E G AT all the others Etiquette Advantage in Business by Peggy Post and Peter Post)
grew up in New York society, where
anyone who was anyone knew every-
one, and everyone kept vigilant for
the slightest nuances that determined
where one stood. (Anna’s grandparents
made the move to Vermont.) Born Emily
Price in 1872, she was the daughter
of a famous architect. She attended
finishing school and married a rich
stockbroker at age 19. A life-sized oil
portrait, painted about that time, hangs
in the Post Institute. She was—forgive
me, Emily—a babe: dark hair, brilliant
1. Should you ask a top executive 7. Which way should you pass
gray-blue eyes, and a figure that must
who clearly outranks you for his food?
have caused whiplash on Park Avenue.
business card? A) To your left. B) To your right.
She had two sons in rapid succession,
A) Yes. B) No. C) What are you doing passing
but her marriage was a disappointment
food in the first place?
and her husband, Edwin, often absent. 2. Which of these chivalries are
Emily took up writing, and family con- gender-free? 8. Can you tip your soup bowl or
nections landed her her first magazine A) Holding a door. B) Getting off cup?
story. She would pen novels that had an elevator. C) Helping put on a A) Yes. B) No.
such comfy titles as Purple and Fine coat. D) Paying for a meal.
9. What should you do if you
Linen and Woven in the Tapestry. Edwin E) Shaking hands. F) Helping
have something in your mouth
had affairs with fledgling actresses and to carry something.
you want to remove?
chorus girls; in 1905, a gossip sheet tried
3. Is it all right to call a fellow A) Bring your napkin to your
to blackmail him to keep one particular
employee “Sweetie”? mouth and quietly spit the item
indiscretion silent. The Posts refused to
A) Yes. B) No. out. B) Raise your fork or spoon
pay and instead helped to expose the
to your lips and gently push
scheme that had netted other society 4. How far away should you be
the offending article onto the
folk; the sting turned the incident into when you talk face to face with
utensil. Then deposit it on the
a public scandal. By 1906, Emily found someone?
edge of your plate. c) Discreetly
herself a divorcee. A) One foot. B) 18 inches.
remove the thing with your fin-
Please try to digest this. Emily Post, C) Two feet. D) The next state.
gers and place it on the edge of
the woman who taught America how
5. Can you wear white suede your plate.
to live gracefully, divorced her husband
pumps in November?
after a public scandal. Emily later wrote 10. How far should you fill a glass
A) Yes. B) No.
that “the man who publicly besmirches of red wine?
his wife’s name, besmirches still more 6. Which topics should you steer A) Half full. B) Two-thirds full.
his own, and proves that he is not, was away from at a business social C) One-third full. D) To one inch
not, and never will be, a gentleman.” occasion? below the rim. E) To the brim
(Edith Wharton, also no stranger to A) Your educational background.
Quiz answers are on page 110.
New York society, would have been a B) Golf. C) Politics. D) Sex.
consolation: “A New York divorce is in E) Religion.
itself a diploma of virtue,” she wrote.)
An editor friend at Vanity Fair, Frank
Spirit | 103
Crowninshield, talked her into writing the “Best Society” simply by behaving
a book on etiquette. And in 1922, Funk as if she or he belonged in it. And just
and Wagnalls published Etiquette in what was Best Society? Emily described
Society, in Business, in Politics, and at it as “an unlimited brotherhood which
Home—all 627 pages of it. It turned spreads over the entire surface of the
out to be one of the most revolutionary globe, the members of which are invari-
books in American history. ably people of cultivation and worldly
Emily Post’s book allowed millions knowledge, who have not only perfect
of Americans to dream of becoming manners but a perfect manner.” Mean-
an aristocrat by dint of their manners, ing that you don’t just want to know the
even while telling them that becom- rules but to do and say “those things
ing an aristocrat wasn’t important. only which will be agreeable to others.”
Whereas in Europe good manners Yet what most likely made Etiquette
would get you nowhere unless you such a success—it was an instant best
were an aristocrat by birth, in America, seller—was not people’s desire to make
so the hope went, an aspiring lady or themselves more agreeable. People
gentleman could earn membership in bought the book in hope that they
the dogs practice
the polite art at
104 | Spirit
It’s Fine to Wear
Very Few Clothes:
of Emily Post
From Etiquette in Society, in Business,
in Politics and at Home (1922)
SKIN IN THE GAME
That young people of today prefer games
to conversation scarcely proves degenera-
tion. That they wear very few clothes is not
a symptom of decline. There have always
been recurring cycles of undress, followed
by muffling from shoe-soles to chin.
MONE Y TALK
Most of those thrown much in contact with
millionaires will agree that an attitude of
infallibility is typical of a fair majority.
HIGHER LE ARNING
Education that does not confer flexibility of
mind is an obviously limited education; the
man of broadest education tunes himself
in unison with whomever he happens to
be. The more subjects he knows about, the
more people he is in sympathy with, and
therefore the more customers or associates
or constituents he is sure to have.
The fact that slang is apt and forceful makes
its use irresistibly tempting. Coarse or pro-
fane slang is beside the mark, but “flivver,”
“taxi,” the “movies,” “deadly” (meaning
dull), “feeling fit,” “feeling blue,” “grafter,”
a “fake,” “grouch,” “hunch,” and “right o!”
are typical of words that it would make our
spoken language stilted to exclude.
A gentleman does not lose control of his
temper. In fact, in his own self-control under
difficult or dangerous circumstances, lies
his chief ascendancy over others who impul-
sively betray every emotion which animates
them. Exhibitions of anger, fear, hatred,
embarrassment, ardor, or hilarity are all bad
form in public.
SHINING E X AMPLE
At the same time it is no idle boast that the
world is at present looking toward America;
and whatever we become is bound to lower
or raise the standards of life. The other
countries are old, we are youth personified!
We have all youth’s glorious beauty and
strength and vitality and courage. If we can
keep these attributes and add finish and
understanding and perfect taste in living and
thinking, we need not dwell on the Golden
Age that is past, but believe in the Golden
Age that is sure to be.
Spirit | 105
could join the social elite, or at least not
condemn themselves to social Siberia. Now Read the Book A great yarn about the politest revoluionary.
In England they used to say that a person
The woman who revolution- The absorbing new biography of Emily Post
who failed to comport himself properly ized American manners was by Laura Claridge contains plenty of eyebrow
was “not quite the thing.” Emily Post gave born seven years before the raising facts like these. But the book goes far
Americans hope that they could become end of the Civil War and beyond a woman’s life, or even etiquette. Clar-
became one of the early idge, a former English professor at the Naval
quite the thing. radio celebrities. She used Academy, uses Emily Post to drill a fascinating
But let’s suppose I don’t care a fig for the base of the Statue of cross-section through American culture—from
social success, or even consideration. In Liberty as a personal play- the Gilded Age right up to the swinging Sixties.
house. When she was a girl, (Oh, behave!)
business, you could argue, consideration she aspired to be an actress and was, accord- In the midst of it all stood one of history’s
and respect for others can seem like ing to one newspaper, “perhaps the best most remarkable women, a reassuring light-
unilateral disarmament—or capitula- banjoist in fashionable society.” She thought house on the rocky shore of human conduct.
slang such as “swell” and “you betcha” –J.H.
tion. Anna Post begs to disagree. “If your were fine, but insisted on calling a tomato a Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mis-
boss is worth half his salt, and he’s think- “tomahto.” And she knew practically every- tress of American Manners, by Laura Claridge.
ing of two employees to send out—the body who was anybody. (Random House, $30.)
pig or the nice one—which would you
choose?” Not only that, but etiquette can Sounds like a prudent strategy, but managed to flub six rules of etiquette—
be crucial in a job interview, she says. what does that have to do with etiquette? at least the 1952 version that my wife
She recounts the legend that McDonald’s “Salting your food insults the cook. uses as her social bible:
founder Ray Kroc would take executive It shows you assume it won’t be to your
prospects out to lunch, “and he would taste.” 1. Don’t blow your nose at the table. (I
judge them by whether they salted their The topic made me hungry, and so thought turning and doing it discreetly
food before tasting it.” began my greatest etiquette test of all, was enough. Anna, on the other hand,
You’re not supposed to salt your food? eating out. had a cold, and not once did I see her
“Not before tasting it,” Anna said. During lunch at an outdoor café, I blow her nose.)
2. Wipe your mouth before drinking from
a glass. (What can I say? Any boss of
mine wouldn’t have sent me.)
3. Don’t discuss business right away.
Make chitchat first. (I immediately
raised the subject of officemates who
4. Let the host pay. Never insist. (Anna
proposed the restaurant and took me
there, but I demanded to pay.)
5. Loosely fold your napkin and leave
it to the left of your plate before you
leave for the bathroom. (Sheesh.)
6. When you want the waiter to clear
your plate, place your knife and fork
on it as if they were clock hands show-
ing 4:20. (As consolation, my daughter,
who waited tables to help pay for col-
lege, didn’t know this.)
I learned all that from a seminar Anna
gave that evening, not from her grimaces
during the meal. To illustrate just how
polite Anna is, she told me later that
I hadn’t broken any really important
rules—just esoteric ones that don’t mean
that much today. How kind of her to say
so. You can tell who’s truly polite by how
they handle unruly types like me. Still,
some rules—what to do with an oyster
fork, for example—make me want to eat
with my hands. I think it’s possible to be
polite to the point of rudeness. The Posts
would doubtless agree. Anna tells a story
that the Institute received on its website.
“A man who was new to the office called
men by their first names and women
‘Mrs. Jones.’ He said his mother taught
him that,” Anna says. This old-school
approach understandably upset some of
his officemates. “In strange situations, it’s
best to err on the formal side,” she says.
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1980s, the wonderfully snarky writer P.J.
O’Rourke wrote a book making fun of
the whole topic. Modern Manners: An
Etiquette Book for Rude People asserts
that etiquette is “a combination of intelli-
gence, education, taste, and style mixed Brands and counting. All priced to move.
together so that you don’t need any of Maybe this is what Heaven is like: a place where consider-
those things.” His book contains handy
tips like these: ation has been elevated to the sacred. If so, I’m doomed.
“Never do anything to your partner with
there weren’t any standards for behavior. be fashionably late,” she said to the stu-
your teeth that you wouldn’t do to an
Now things are far from perfect, but I dents later.
expensive waterproof wristwatch.”
think it’s gotten a little better.” Like a good executive, she showed
“If your drink runs up your nose, you may
The rules also remain important for PowerPoint slides. One said, “Etiquette
be lying on the floor.”
young people aspiring to employment. = Manners + Principles.” She illustrated
“Most men do not look trustworthy with
Anna often teaches proper comportment the importance of rules that everyone fol-
their pants off.”
to executive wannabes. I got to see her lows by having a student stand up. Anna
“Never wear anything that panics the cat.”
in action during a rare event near her extended her hand and told the student
“A hat should be taken off when you greet
office. The University of Vermont holds not to shake. Her hand lingered in
a lady and left off for the rest of your
intensive two-week seminars to prepare space, and an awkward silence ensued.
liberal arts majors for the business world. “There’s a tension out there,” she said,
One might think that the Posts would feel Besides resume work, job hunting strate- and the students nodded. Anna showed
insulted by the book, but the person who gies, and field trips to nearby companies, another slide, this one of a 2005 poll
put me onto it was Anna Post herself. the students spend an evening with asking Americans if they frequently saw
Nonetheless, etiquette instruction Anna. people using their cell phones rudely.
remains in high demand. That’s because She appeared in a tailored jacket in a Fifty-five percent said yes. (The other 45
we have rules for a reason. If we didn’t hot, spare meeting room on campus. The percent clearly don’t use mass transpor-
have them, then people would walk students—some 20 of them—arrived five tation.) But only 8 percent admitted to
around doing clueless things. “Look at minutes early, a feat that may be unprec- being rude with their cell phones them-
cellphones,” Anna said. “A few years ago, edented in the history of academia and selves.
they were out of control. That’s because one that pleased Anna. “It’s not good to “Etiquette gives us a code for how to
behave so we can focus on more impor-
tant things,” Anna said. It’s like being an
experienced driver. “We drive everyday,
so we don’t have to think about it, letting
us think and use the radio, hopefully
without crashing into one another.” Eti-
quette also helps us avoid looking like
pigs. “When you think about it, eating is
gross,” she continued. “Etiquette keeps
us from grossing each other out.”
She got the biggest student buzz when
she demonstrated how to hold a knife
and fork. As students practiced, the clat-
ter of dropped silverware filled the room.
“If you can’t do it, just do the best you
can,” Anna said. “I don’t want to see food
flying across the table Pretty Woman
style.” To my surprise, Anna herself uses
the European style, eating with the left
hand after cutting her food. Turns out
Emily herself did this, preferring the
method to what she called “zig-zag eat-
ing.” Anna’s other tips to the students:
If you get lousy service in a restaurant,
leave a tip anyway. “You can leave less
than 15%, but talk to management.
Otherwise it doesn’t resolve anything.”
When the wine steward hands you the
cork, just look at it. If the wine is more
than halfway up the cork, it hasn’t
been sealed properly.
Pass the bread bowl to the right after
offering to the left.
Eat cherry tomatoes with a fork. “Better
to squirt someone from your plate than
from your mouth.”
If you see spinach on someone’s teeth,
tell them by discreetly pointing to your
own teeth. (“Or you could text mes-
sage them,” one student says pragmati-
Anna insists, though, that the rules
should help us, not restrict us. “Worlds
won’t end if you do it differently,” she told
the students. “Sometimes the rules get in
the way, because people follow the letter
of the law. Short of putting your face on
the plate, you really can’t go wrong. But
if you wouldn’t be comfortable seeing
yourself do something on video after-
ward, then you shouldn’t do it.”
Etiquette takes on particular impor-