The words “politeness,” “manners,” and “etiquette” sound starched, stiff, and formal to me—like fancy shirts that hang in my closet and are hardly worn. It’s not that manners aren’t important—a quick Google search reveals a slew of websites dedicated to explaining American cultural mores to travelers from other countries, and the present state of Internet comments sections leave no doubt that we need some manners lessons. But the classic concept of “politeness” can often feel like that ball gown of years past: too formal in a society that has perhaps become as casual in its manner of speaking as it has in its dress.
Enter Emily Post, a household name since the publication of her book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home in 1922. With her engaging writing style and witty turns of phrase, Post sets out the ways in which ladies and gentlemen should comport themselves in society. I decided to spend a month with her book, to see what I could glean. Though many, many books have been written since Post’s to update her guidelines to the modern day (most of us aren’t regularly attending balls these days!), I decided to read the original guide. And though some of Post’s advice is outmoded—we don’t have servants, don’t often give multi-course dinners, or attend formal dances—I learned from this book that etiquette is more than manners or politeness, but a way of life.
“Etiquette must, if it is to be of more than trifling use, include ethics as well as manners,” Post says. “A knowledge of etiquette is of course essential to one’s decent behavior, just as clothing is essential to one’s decent appearance.” She also makes clear that it’s not only one’s manners that matter, but one’s manner: “Manners are made up of trivialities of deportment which can be easily learned if one does not happen to know them; manner is personality—the outward manifestation of one’s innate character and attitude toward life.”
Throughout the varied advice Post gives, what she most illuminated for me is that etiquette allows for the shaping not only of the outward signs of politeness, as shown in manners, but also of my inner disposition. Instead of stifling my personality, knowledge and use of etiquette enhances and better expresses it. The key to etiquette is an awareness of others and their needs: “Would you know the secret of popularity? It is unconsciousness of self, altruistic interest, and inward kindliness, outwardly expressed in good manners.” This others-oriented approach to etiquette allows not only greater awareness for the needs of others, but a greater awareness of myself. Who I am can be reflected in how I arrange my space, how I honor my commitments, how I act as a guest, and even how I express myself in written communication. In implementing some of Post’s guidelines in my own life, I found room to be myself, thus making politeness more natural and meaningful than I had previously thought possible.
Choosing objects for one’s home
In consideration of my living space, Post’s maxim that a home should “reflect the charm of its owner” struck me. I’d never considered that the way I present my living space could be a reflection of myself, much less be an aspect of etiquette. Choosing objects and even furniture that accentuate the beauty of one’s space and reflect one’s personal style is, Emily Post says, not only for the benefit of the person who lives in the space day-in and day-out, but also for visitors.
Post reminds me that in being a reflection of myself, an inviting space indicates an inviting attitude, while a messy or crowded space may indicate to guests a lack of care for their comfort. Before reading Post, I also hadn’t deeply considered my guests’ comfort, immersed as I am in the world of the casual hangout where I minimally prepare for my friends’ arrival, if at all. There’s certainly nothing wrong with casual get-togethers, but I like the idea of preparing my space so that guests feel welcome not just by me, but through my home itself.
Post recommends the following in regards to objects in one’s home:
In buying an article for a house one might formulate for oneself a few test questions:
First, is it useful? Anything that is really useful has a reason for existence.
Second, has it really beauty of form and line and color?…
Or is it merely, striking, or amusing?
Third, is it entirely suitable for the position it occupies?
Fourth, if it were eliminated would it be missed? Would something else look as well or better, in its place? Or would its place look as well empty? A truthful answer to these questions would at least help in determining its value, since an article that failed in any of them could not be ‘perfect.’
I’ve found these questions useful not only for the buying of objects but also for getting rid of them. A recent personal project has involved slowly going through a closet that has housed school books, papers, photographs, and childhood memorabilia. Throughout the process, I’ve struggled to discern what to let go of and what to keep. Post prompts me to ask myself, if the object doesn’t have a place to “live” besides my closet, will it ever be useful and, really, would I even miss it if it were gone.
Post’s guidelines regarding the usefulness, beauty, suitability, and importance of an object have also made me more aware of my own living space. Currently, I don’t have my own house or even apartment to design, but I have begun to consider how and if my bedroom is an expression of me. I’ve tended to let piles of books and papers build up in my space; now I’d like to be more attuned to the objects I have on display. Though I may be the only occupant of this space, I do want my bedroom to reflect my personal style.
Sticking to my commitments
In today’s culture, canceling plans can be as easy as sending a quick text—something we don’t even think twice about. We may be swimming in commitments and not realize that we’ve positioned our appointments too close together. We may have said “yes” less because we actually want to commit to another plan and more because “yes” is our default. We may just desire a quiet night at home over the plan we have agreed to. Or maybe, an infinitely better invitation has come our way after we’ve already agreed to another plan. In her lively way of writing, Emily Post has reminded me that this attitude toward making—and breaking—plans is something I should reconsider:
To accept a dinner at Mrs. Nobody’s and then break the obligation upon being invited to dine with the Wordlys, proclaims anyone capable of such rudeness an unmitigated snob, whom Mrs. Wordly would be the first to cut from her visiting list if she knew of it. The rule is: “Don’t accept an invitation if you don’t care about it.” Having declined the Nobody invitation in the first place, you are then free to accept Mrs. Worldly’s or to stay at home.
Since reading this, I’ve tried not to make plans that I might have to break; for example, when a possibility arose in which two different plans seemed like they could occur on the same day, I figured out the plans with the first friend before committing to the second. This prevented me from saying “yes” to the second friend and then having to cancel.
Post also emphasizes that family members should not be excepted from this basic rule of politeness: “An engagement, even with a member of one’s family, ought never to be broken twice within a brief period, or it becomes apparent that the other’s presence is more a fill-in of idle time than a longed-for pleasure.”
From Post, I’ve learned that I can communicate care with the way I make commitments. This care is expressed in my awareness about my plans themselves, and not only extends to friends to whom too many cancelled plans might make me appear rude or flaky, but also to myself. Knowing my plans—and how much activity I can actually handle—will allow me to approach my commitments with less fatigue or resentment about how overcommitted I am. A schedule of activities properly proportioned to allow for both rest and activity will certainly make me better company.
Being a good guest
Again, as a person used to going over to friends’ houses casually—less as a “guest” and more as a peer—I hadn’t considered what being a good guest entails before reading Post. Post says that being a guest requires having a “becoming mental attitude.” Some of the qualities of a good guest include: “A ready smile, a quick sympathy, a happy outlook, consideration for others, tenderness toward everything that is young and helpless [like children], and forgetfulness of self.” Though the idea of being tender toward “the young and helpless” is probably not what we’re thinking about when we visit our friends (even if they do have children or pets), this is sound advice. Any time a person welcomes us into their home or into their life, they are being vulnerable, and we can respond to this vulnerability by being especially loving toward our friend and what she holds dear, be that her kids, her pets, or even her thoughts and ideas.
I realized this during a recent visit to a friend of mine. She now has two children under the age of three. So, a great deal of my time was spent accompanying her and her children around their house. My friend and I talked as she made lunch for the kids or changed a diaper; we moved into the basement when one of the kids wanted to play down there. From Post, I’ve learned that just as a host(ess) is accommodating, so must a guest be.
As a guest, I have the power to be flexible: someone who “merely adapts himself or herself like a chameleon to the customs and hours and diversions of the household.” I can do that both by holding a friend’s baby while she draws a bath and by accepting the hot cup of tea that is offered to me. As a rather methodical person so used to planning out my days, I enjoy that being a guest allows for a suspension of my regular schedule, an avenue of creative exchange between my friend and myself. In being a guest, I’ve discovered an ability to be “always ready for anything,” to help my host(ess) feel at ease, so that my presence is a pleasure instead of another chore.
Communicating through writing
Though Emily Post wrote Etiquette during a time in which letter communication was still rather popular, I’ve found what she has to say about writing equally useful for internet communication. I was most struck by what she has to say about the limitations of writing for conveying emotion:
For all emotions written words are a bad medium. The light jesting tone that saves a quip from offense can not be expressed; and remarks that if spoken would amuse, can but pique and even insult their subject. Without the interpretation of the voice, gaiety becomes levity, raillery becomes accusation. Moreover, words of a passing moment are made to stand forever.
I feel like Post could say the same to us in 2021. This idea of the relative permanence of the written word has led me to more deeply consider my own tone in the written communication I’ve produced. Working through a difficult season of life has led to letters and emails weighed down with my worries. Though it’s perfectly natural to share with friends my anxieties, Post’s advice has given me pause. In the absence of spoken communication, does the expression of my worries ever come across as complaint or wallowing? Post has challenged me to make future communication more oriented toward those I’m writing to, and less focused on my own worries. And though I’d learned how to begin and end a letter in school—with a focus on the person I’m writing to—Post brings the beginnings and endings of letters into a new light.
Post makes clear that beginnings and endings of letters should not be taken up with self-deprecation or apologies for not writing sooner. These types of beginnings do not do what the beginning of a letter should do: “[express] a friendly or loving thought.” The beginnings of letters should convey to the one being written to that s/he is cared for. Endings are similar: “…the aim of the closing paragraph is merely to bring in a personal hyphen between the person writing and the person written to,” to include the other person in one’s closing thoughts.
Just as choosing objects for one’s home, keeping a commitment, and being a guest can be expressions of myself, Post sees the written word as being yet another way to give yourself to another person: “The letter you write, whether you realize it or not, is always a mirror which reflects your appearance, taste and character.” Post has encouraged me to see written communication as an art, a means of conveying not only a message, but my individual voice and heart to others.
Though the idea of being guided through matters of etiquette initially felt a touch obsolete, I’ve learned that far from being phony conventions that make interactions unnecessarily formal, the rules of etiquette can actually enhance my personality. From Post I get the sense that I can add my own personal flair to living with attentiveness to manners and politeness, and in both my personality and my personal space, I can express attentive care for those around me. Far from adding coolness to my interactions with others, I am finding that good etiquette adds warmth; it encourages me to go outside myself and better discern the needs of others. In doing so, I’m coming to better know myself.