Charlotte Krontiris

Genuine Society


Anti-spitting sign, Ireland, 1900-20, Wellcome Collection, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution4.0 International

1, Introducing Emily Post

“And how would you like a good sock in the nose, you old meat-axe?”
-Dorothy Parker on Etiquette

It is probably unkind to introduce an author by quoting her cleverest critic. But as our author is a redoubtable lady, I think it is not too cruel to bring her to your attention by way of Dorothy Parker.

The author in question is Emily Post, grande dame of American manners and author of Etiquette (1922), the definitive volume on how we all ought to behave. Nowadays Post is remembered mostly as the founder of the Emily Post Institute, which publishes books like the ominously titled “Excuse Me, But I Was Next...” and offers seminars to businesses on “corporate civility.” She also makes the rounds as a punch-line to unfunny jokes on TV shows and in movies (“I'm sorry, I guess I skipped the Emily Post chapter about how to introduce your mother to a hooker!”). Though a few earnest souls continue to take Emily Post seriously, most people do not take her at all, for her preoccupations appear essentially irrelevant to modern life. Who in the age of the internet needs to read 61 pages of instructions on how to write a letter?

Of course, some would argue that human beings were never in need of a 61-page manual on letter-writing, not even when the mail came twice a day. Dorothy Parker thought so. In 1927, she wrote a blistering review of Etiquette for the New Yorker, in which she made clear just how intrusive and absurd she found Post’s rules. “Emily Post’s Etiquette is out again, this time in a new and an enlarged edition, and so the question of what to do with my evenings has been all fixed up for me,” she begins. “I am going in for a course of study at the knee of Mrs. Post. Maybe some time in the misty future, I shall be Asked Out, and I shall be ready.”

Parker takes her reader through Etiquette’s highlights—its most didactic maxims, its most tedious tropes, its most offensive pretensions. In a book with “all the force and the application of a morality play,” you better believe there is a lot to cover. Though Parker is pained by the book’s bad prose (“the author’s invention plucks at the coverlet”), she is more disgusted by its snobbery. The people that Emily Post puts forth as examples of Best Society appall Parker. They move through life with “freezing politeness,” disparaging as “white trash” those who are a shade too friendly, too open, or too unpracticed in life’s refinements. Parker finds such refinement nauseating, animated by a repellent kind of class-awareness. “I know of no character in the literature of the last quarter century who is such a complete pain in the neck,” she says of one of Etiquette’s exemplars; after one particularly trying chapter, she imagines offering the “old meat-axe” a “good sock in the nose.”

Perhaps Parker could forgive a snob—she is a bit snobbish herself, sometimes—but what she cannot forgive is a conformist. There lies the heart of her argument with Etiquette: that it urges upon us all a kind of stultifying conformity. Parker, firecracker that she is, wants to talk freely and spiritedly about “life, sex, literature, the drama,” but such exchanges are not possible in Emily Post’s world. Instead, writes Parker, “those who are entirely, impeccably right, would seem to arrive at a point of exquisite dullness.” Conversation, confined to “safe topics,” hovers in an awful limbo. “You talk of something you have been doing or thinking about,” instructs Post. “Not at all a bad plan is to ask advice: ‘We want to motor through the South. Do you know about the roads?’ Or, ‘I’m thinking of buying a radio. Which make do you think is best?’” Did God create Dorothy Parker to talk like this? She thinks not.

I may not dispute Mrs. Post. If she says that is the way you should talk, then, indubitably, that is the way you should talk. But...there is no force great enough ever to make me say, “I’m thinking of buying a radio.”

2, What is wrong with Emily Post?

Etiquette was first published in 1922, when Emily Post was 50 years old. It was an instant best-seller and has been in print ever since: popular lore says that during World War II, it was the book GI’s requested most frequently as reading material. (Which report throws my assumptions about military life into some confusion.) Post handily converted her popularity into an etiquette-themed media empire. Over the next forty years, she was constantly engaged in revisions of the original book, a spin-off radio show, a daily column, and her eponymous Institute. By the time of her death in 1960, Etiquette had been revised ten times and was in its 89th printing.

And yet for decades, her readers have echoed Dorothy Parker’s lament. Does there indeed exist a force—a requirement of good manners or simple sociability—that can compel any of us to participate in a conversation about buying a new radio? Are such tedious niceties really necessary to social life? Post’s Etiquette is full of nitpicking rules about the kind of situations that we are accustomed to navigate on our own. We operate by instinct, by private judgment, by past experience, and rarely do we look for an explicit doctrine to guide us. Why do we need Emily Post to tell us, for example, how to make introductions between strangers? (“In introducing a gentleman to a lady, you may ask Mr. Smith if he has met Mrs. Jones, but you must not ask Mrs. Jones if she has met Mr. Smith!”) How to sign a letter to a friend? (“‘Yours in haste’ or ‘Hastily yours’ is not bad form, but is rather carelessly rude.”) She even tutors us in our cutlery. (“Have Silver That Shines Or None.”)

Few critics of Etiquette have asked the question, Why might I need these rules? Instead they tend to ask, What kind of a meat-axe is Emily Post, that she wrote such rules in the first place? Answers to this question abound. Modern readers of Post, such as Elizabeth Kolbert (also writing in the New Yorker), have been only too pleased to look for answers in Emily Post’s private life.1 The daughter of a prominent architect and a coal heiress, “Emily” was a “great beauty,” “slender and tall...with pale skin, dark hair, and a thin nose.” She moved comfortably but not intimately in New York’s Best Society. The signal fact of her life, according to this interpretation, was her divorce in 1906 from her husband of thirteen years. Edwin Post, the rascal, had permitted his affairs with chorus girls and actresses to become fodder for the newspapers. After demurely standing by her man through the worst of the scandal, “Emily” filed for divorce and lived the rest of her life, Kolbert notes, in contented celibacy.

Critics of Etiquette fashion all sorts of psychological explanations out of this history. Reviewing a recent biography for the New York Times, one writer discerned in Post “a suffocating, overbearing obsessive.” Post’s passion for a rule-bound society is traced variously to her status as a perpetual outsider in Best Society; her disgust for her husband, who was hopelessly undisciplined; and the trauma of her very public divorce. All of these experiences were profoundly destabilizing for Post’s sense of herself, and for her social position. She longed, allegedly, for a society that was so regimented, so well-ordered, that the scandal of her marriage would have been impossible; and of this kingdom, she wished to be queen. “The key,” writes Kolbert, “was conformity. This was a lesson that Post herself had clearly internalized...She learned the rules, and she followed them.”

Others have taken a less biographical approach to the question, What was wrong with Emily Post? Wylie Sypher, a writer and scholar who was a contemporary of Dorothy Parker, viewed Emily Post as part of an ill-fated subculture in the early 20th century that aspired to a more traditional, conservative society. (Sypher elevated Post considerably by comparing her mission with T.S. Eliot’s, but dealt her a bad blow when he called her writing “unrefined.” Perhaps he was referring to her fervid application of the exclamation point!) Etiquette, in this analysis, was an attempt to resurrect the norms of a more conservative time by extremely detailed instruction. Sypher termed this excessive rule-making a “cyborg art,” or the art of turning people into social automatons. He argued that Post intended to codify social life so completely that all social actors could simply follow her script, “entirely automated,” and perform her prescribed rituals with a minimum of engagement. The perfect gentleman for “Mrs. Post,” Sypher claimed, was “l’homme machine.” (“Mrs. Post” would have disputed with him on principle: “Never interlard your conversation with foreign words or phrases when you can possibly translate them into English.”)

Sypher comes the closest to explaining what so alarms Post’s critics about her vision of etiquette. Dorothy Parker and her intellectual heirs see etiquette as an instrument by which a great many individuals are taught to do and say and be the same, inane thing. Spontaneity and creativity have no place in this society. Individuality has no place, for we are all striving to become reproductions of one another, to repress our own particular interests and desires until we have mastered the performance of a generic Lady or Gentleman. Our conversations proceed by rote, expressing nothing of our true selves—“I’m thinking of buying a radio, which make do you think best?” We become interchangeable, and what is worse, exquisitely dull. Kolbert notes that Post had nothing “penetrating to say, even in private, on the major issues of her day.” Who would want to live in such a world, where we are not permitted to think or speak about things that really matter? Who would think it worth living by these rules, if it means we can never really be ourselves? Such a world might be comfortable in its own way, but it must eventually become unbearably unreal.

3, Emily Post comes to bat

And what has Emily Post to say to this? As I said at the beginning, she was a redoubtable lady, doing battle with Parker and her ilk from the time Etiquette first appeared. Indeed, given the volume of criticism about Emily Post and Etiquette, surprisingly little of it responds to Post’s own claims. She was acutely aware of the charges lodged against her, and she argued strenuously against them. In the 1937 edition of Etiquette, the one I own, she makes her case clearly, passionately, and repeatedly; one cannot help thinking that her critics, in addition to disagreeing with her, have also misunderstood her, or at any rate read her carelessly. There is certainly a case to make against Etiquette—it is a large and slow-moving target for anyone on the hunt—but it has not been well made.

But that is not our business here; we have spent enough time with the critics. Let us sit instead for a moment, as Dorothy Parker never really did, at the knee of Mrs. Post. What sort of instrument does she imagine etiquette to be?

In the first place, we must dismiss this mistaken notion about etiquette, that it asks us to pretend to be someone we are not. The critique offered by Parker et al suggests that to be a lady or a gentleman, one must adopt a set of generic gestures, small talk, and other such habits of presentation, which have no basis in our real selves. This is not any kind of etiquette that Post would recognize. She has no interest in pretense. If she has one principle to rule all others, it is the principle of authenticity. It is almost a crusade with her to make what is “real” the rule of social life: real silver (“in the great dining room, all the silver should be real!”); real flowers (though in wintertime “porcelain ones may take their place—unless there is a lunch or dinner party”); real boots (“all leather must be real leather”); real lace (otherwise it is not “the ideal dress”); real shirt-studs (pearls are the only “real ones”); real names (“never a nick-name”); even real faces (“painted faces [never] look like ‘real’ complexions”). By Post’s lights, an imitation of a grand thing is much worse than offering, cheerfully and unapologetically, what is really ours.2

If this rule is true for our belongings, it is doubly true for our selves. Post insists that well-mannered people be as authentic as their silver. Indeed, the single most important thing to understand about good manners is that they are never, ever a matter of appearances. “A gentleman’s manners are an integral part of him and are the same whether in his dressing–room or in a ballroom,” instructs Post. “He whose manners are only put on in company is a veneered gentleman, not a real one.” To master etiquette and meet with social success, one must be actuated by the best “qualities of mind and heart,” not by ambition or obsequy. The proper denizen of Best Society is not a cyborg but, in Post’s own words, “a real person.”

Illustration by Wesley Clapp

What is a “real” person? What makes for authentic self-presentation? Drawing on Dorothy Parker’s words, we might think of an authentic person as someone who freely expresses her thoughts and feelings. If she thinks someone is an old meat-axe, she says so; if she has no interest in making boring small talk, she doesn’t. Her ideas and her reactions, her desires and her dispositions, are transparent to the society in which she moves. This is not the kind of authenticity that Emily Post has in mind. She is less concerned with the transparency of one’s personality than with transparency of character. Virtues and vices—this is the currency she deals in. (No wonder Parker was disgusted.) In “The True Meaning of Etiquette,” the very first chapter the book, Post defines good manners as “the code of instinctive decency, ethical integrity, self-respect and loyalty.” Rules matter only as handmaidens to the genuine expression of real virtue:

Etiquette, if it is to be of more than trifling use, must go far beyond the mere mechanical rules of procedure or the equally automatic precepts of conventional behavior. Actually etiquette is most deeply concerned with every phase of ethical impulse or judgment and with every choice or expression of taste, since what one is, is of far greater importance than what one appears to be.

“The importance of what one is”—this is not the province of a cyborg, the concern of the exquisitely dull. It is the concern of a moralist.

And Emily Post is, at heart, a moral writer. Her project is to figure out how the virtues that adhere in us are best expressed in social life. Decency, integrity, self-respect, loyalty; kindness, courtesy, graciousness, humor. How do these qualities, if we have really got them, lead us to act in all the messy situations that make up a social experience? What, for example, is the truly gracious way to respond to a guest who is an hour late to dinner? What is the really loyal thing to say to a friend who is buying an ugly dress? How can we deal courteously with a boorish companion? How can we encounter, with integrity, a person we dislike? How do we show true kindness to someone who is grieving?

For Post, social life is a daily test of character. Its episodes may be trivial taken one by one, but together they comprise the most significant opportunity we have to be kind, to be decent, to exercise whatever qualities of mind and heart we would like to think we possess. It is the science of etiquette to make the most of this opportunity.

4, “What is the purpose of this rule?”

In a way, Post’s insistence on the authenticity of good manners only makes Etiquette stranger. For Parker, Kolbert, and Sypher are right about one thing: the book is chock full of rules. Post may airily dismiss these precepts as “trifling,” but she wrote almost 900 pages of them all the same. Why do true kindness and integrity require such instruction? Are lessons on restaurant etiquette and dating manners really the best way to cultivate these qualities?

To understand the connection between Post’s mission and her many rules, we had better have a further look at the rules themselves. Post’s critics have painted her as obsessive, prescriptive, and arbitrary in her doctrines, but this is not the case. As for her being obsessive, Post’s detractors do not acknowledge the many kinds of social interactions for which Post gives no guide at all. Etiquette distinguishes strictly between private and public spheres, and while Post has much to say about our public conduct, she has nothing to say about what we do in private. How intimate friends should behave towards each other; how brothers and sisters, or parents and children should behave, she remarks not at all. (In-laws are fair game, and considerable space is devoted to their keeping.) Marriage itself is beyond her compass. She says nothing of the relationship between husband and wife, except that it is a “no one’s affair but [their] own.” To share private details of a marriage is “unspeakable.”

If Post has nothing to say about these private spaces, it is because she thinks we are licensed to talk and act as we please in them. Life, sex, literature, the drama, the major issues of the day: dig in! Presumably the only reason that privacy matters, anyway, is that something of real, personal interest is going on in private life. It would not be so wrong for a husband to share his wife’s confidences if his wife had not been saying something pretty interesting to begin with.

Even in public spaces, Post’s approach is more nuanced than she is credited with. Some social situations she regards essentially as rituals: introductions, for examples, or weddings. For these scenarios, Post gives explicit rules for what she calls “the unending details,” so that things will proceed “with ease and smoothness.” Here rules maintain the sort of order and peace that everyone is anxious for at “ceremonial functions.”

But most of social life is not ceremonial, as Post is well aware. Going out to dinner or the movies with friends, hosting guests for a weekend, dating: these are parts of social life with which etiquette is intimately concerned, and yet for which it is impossible to make strict rules. For such fluid situations, Post does not prescribe so much as she exhorts us to use our common sense. And if we attend to her actual advice, we will find that for the most part it is not only unobjectionable but helpful. Consider, for example, the suggestion made to “certain middle-aged men as well as women,” who grumble at the theater or at concerts when new arrivals try to take their seats:

It is quite true that having to gather up opera glasses, program, bag, and stand while each person on a long aisle goes out and comes back separately after every act, can be far from pleasurable. But if one hasn’t sufficient self-control not only to seem but to be amiable about whatever annoyances one encounters, one should at least take enough trouble to avoid the obvious annoyances or else stay at home. As an example of the obvious, why not take pains to get seats away from an aisle instead of on it?

Is this the voice of “freezing politeness” that set Dorothy Parker a-shuddering? It is hard to imagine a more benign recommendation than that we should avoid situations that make us snipish. Indeed, though Post’s advice is sometimes dated, it is never stupid. To a debutante at her first party, Post says, “On no account force yourself to laugh. Nothing is flatter than laughter that is lacking in mirth.” To someone writing a letter: “Be chary of underscoring and postscripts.” To one suffering an awkward pause in conversation: “Do not snatch at it. Let it go for a little while. Conversation is not a race that must be continued at a break-neck pace lest the prize be lost.” To an unhappy guest: “No matter how much the hours or food or arrangements may upset you, you must appear blissfully content.” (In the next section, she takes pity and advises him to escape the party: “You May Send Yourself A Telegram.”)

We may object to some of these rules. Indeed, the modern reader will probably find the passages on courtship amusing (“How far may a girl run after a man? Cat-like, she may do a little stalking!”). This is only to say that Emily Post lived in the early 20th century, and we live in the early 21st century. But even where we disagree with Post, her basic thoughtfulness is undeniable. Her stipulation that “if the cake is very soft and sticky or filled with cream, small forks must be laid on the tea table” is rather touching. Even that old rule about introductions, by which we are forbidden to ask Mrs. Jones if she has met Mr. Smith before, sets me thinking.

And this is precisely the point of Etiquette—to set us thinking, all the time, about the meaning of the things we do and say. Good manners for Emily Post are never mindless. They are never simple acts of obedience. She despises any understanding of etiquette that treats social life like “a sum in arithmetic.” Etiquette, she makes clear, is the product of a constant, critical engagement with our social surroundings. No precepts, even Post’s own, should escape our scrutiny. “What is the purpose of this rule?” she prods us. “Does it help to make life pleasanter? Does it make the social machinery run more smoothly? Does it add to beauty? Is it essential to the code of good taste or to ethics?” Dorothy Parker read Etiquette as a “morality play,” but it lacks a glib ending. Emily Post ultimately commends us to our own judgment. “The best rule is your innate good sense—and sensibility.”

5, An argument for rules

But good sense, unfortunately, is not always innate. Sometimes we meet with situations that surpass our sensibility, or that stump our judgment. Social life is so very complicated. It is complex, with feedback loops and chains of effect that we cannot possibly intuit, and opaque, full of people about whom we know almost or actually nothing. Naming virtues for social life is simple enough (Post herself tosses off definitions with an easy athleticism), but in this dark, confusing world, it is sometimes hard to see how we translate these impulses into real action. Where does loyalty cross into adulation, or into prejudice? When does humor amuse, and when does it insult? What is the line between kindness and condescension? Sometimes we know the answers to these questions, but in many encounters we honestly do not. Good intentions so easily miss their targets. This is the strange truth at the heart of Etiquette: that even as we strive to engage in social life as authentically as we can, with all our qualities of mind and heart, such engagement never comes naturally. Being “a real person” is not at all intuitive.

And yet our impulses count for nothing if we do not know how to express them fluently. Loyalty does not consist in loyal intentions, but in loyal actions. Likewise the desire to be funny is worthless if we do not actually know how to make people laugh. What are we to do, then, when we don’t know what to do? How can we bridge impulse and action, to give our baffled yearnings for loyalty and humor, courtesy and integrity, some outward reality? Post’s answer is simple, but marvelous: “Practice.” The expression of courtesy can be learned, and an impulse for integrity can be trained. “A few rare persons are born with quick perception and innate kindness,” she says (in a chapter she gloriously titles, “What We Contribute to the Beauty of Living”), “but in greatest measure tact, like most of the social graces, is the result of training.”

Rules and precepts offer such training, by channeling our inept intentions into concrete actions. Some rules make us more sensitive to the implications of behavior we would otherwise overlook, as with Post’s counsel against signing a letter “Yours in haste.” In the same way, she advises against introducing one person to another as “my friend,” for it “implies that the other person is not.” These sorts of transgressions are minor, but they are Emily Post’s bread and butter. A lifetime’s worth of insulting introductions will leave some stain on a man’s soul. At other times, the rules of etiquette help us make sense of situations that utterly stymie us, when we feel helpless to find expression for our good impulses. In a section about writing letters of condolence, Post gives beautiful, lucid rules for one such impossible task:

Don’t dwell on the details of illness or the manner of death; don’t quote endlessly from the poets and the Scriptures. Remember that eyes filmed with tears and an aching heart cannot follow rhetorical lengths of writing. The more nearly a note can express a hand-clasp, a thought of sympathy, above all, a genuine love or appreciation of the one who has gone, the greater comfort it brings.

We are accustomed to think of rules as that which confine us, or bind us, or prevent somehow the free movement of our thoughts and actions. But for Emily Post, the opposite is true. She considers that we are already pretty badly handicapped when it comes to social life, both by the obscurity of other people and by the complexity of our relations with them. We cannot live freely and easily as ourselves—kind, courteous, what-have-you—because we don’t know what kindness really looks like among these strangers, or what our courtesy should do. We are confined in an awful state of suspense: does this mean to other people what it means to me? Did she interpret that gesture correctly? Did he take my comment the wrong way? Was that an insult? Was that supposed to be a joke? Between two strangers at a dinner party, these questions will cause some frostiness; between a woman and her mother-in-law, they will cause something much worse.

For Emily Post, the rules of etiquette offer relief from our natural limitations. By putting order on our interactions with the world and providing stable pathways from intention to action, etiquette frees us to interact meaningfully and genuinely with other people. When Dorothy Parker thought of making small talk about radios, she was oppressed by the prospect of insincerity and intolerable boredom. But for Emily Post, the same prompt offers something much more hopeful: the gentle beginnings of a conversation, by which we might bring ourselves out into the great, messy unknown of a social life: “I’m thinking of buying a radio...”

1 This piece, like most recent articles on Emily Post, was occasioned by Laura Claridge’s 2008 biography, Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners.

2 Silver, pearls, flowers in the wintertime—is etiquette for the wealthy alone? The answer is a complicated “no.” While Emily Post was undoubtedly a snob, and while much of Etiquette (particularly earlier editions) assumes a wealthy audience, the book advocates norms of gentility that transcend class. For Post, good manners create a meeting ground for people from different backgrounds. Class issues are complexly woven through the book, however, and worth exploring in their own right.

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