The modern revival of an Emily Post mentality
What do you think of when you hear the word “etiquette”? Chances are you think of stuffy, boring, old-fashioned, proper manners and that etiquette doesn’t matter anymore. You’d be wrong.
Etiquette expert Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, said etiquette and etiquette consulting businesses are thriving in the 21st century due to less of a focus on teaching etiquette in schools and the confusion over dealing with technology etiquette.
Smith said she became interested in the fields of etiquette and social skills through her human resources background. Smith founded Mannersmith in 1996 after teaching etiquette training seminars for companies. She said at the time, and even today, people wouldn’t go to an etiquette training seminar, so she would market the seminar and title it, “New Skills for Emerging Leaders,” so employees would be more apt to attend.
Fifty years ago, children and young adults would learn etiquette from their parents, from their peers and from school and religious programs, but a major shift happened during the 1960s. During this time, Smith said there was blowback from the idea of etiquette and manners, and then, during the 1980s, etiquette began to rise as people realized basic tenets of manners — for example, saying “please” and “thank you” — were still needed.
Marianne Cohen, vice president responsible for client relations, marketing and special projects at Mannersmith, worked with and developed a program called Manners for Minors, which targets children of different age ranges to teach social skills and etiquette.
“We cover table manners, hand shakes, looking adults in the eye, telephone manners and thank you notes,” Cohen said. “And then we have a program geared toward Girl Scouts, because they can earn a badge for it.”
Etiquette has changed over the years, not just because of technology, but also because of social change, and Cohen said the etiquette has had to evolve to fit the times.
“Women have a much more prominent role in the business world, so the etiquette has to change,” she said. “Is it okay for a man to pull out a chair for a woman at a business meeting? No, because it’s a business meeting, and they are equals. I think it’s also getting harder to define those guidelines.”
Daniel Post Senning of the Emily Post Institute said the EPI constantly hears from older generations who bemoan their grandchildren’s lack of manners, but he said this situation has always been the case.
“Manners change and evolve over time, and being prepared to move with them is a big part of what we do, but also having a framework for thinking about etiquette more broadly has been really important to us as well,” Senning said. “Every generation witnesses the changes in manners over a lifetime and thinks the state of manners is in decline, [and] it’s not an unusual phenomenon.”
Since there has been a resurgence of etiquette and manners following the turn of the century, society now has a new issue to consider — the rise of social media and other technology.
Oversharing on social media or commenting on everything that people do is one of the major social media blunders, Smith said. In addition to oversharing, she noted there are more subtle social media issues, like the exclusion of someone in a certain friend group, she explained.
“There can be all sorts of hurt feelings that go on,” she said. “And then of course there are the people who have very strong political or religious opinions who take that to social media. I think we need to be able to share our opinions and educate other people, but in a polite way.”
Senning said he shares Smith’s opinion and cautions people against excessive or inappropriate use of social media.
“People can share information that’s just too personal or too private, or they can share too much,” he said. “In an age where assessing and filtering digital media is a requirement in today’s world, not overburdening someone and giving them a deluge of information that they have to sift through — there’s a certain lack of courtesy.”
Smith said etiquette in 2014 simply means having confidence in yourself and your ability to navigate a social situation.
“If you have confidence in yourself because you’re dressed appropriately for the occasion or because you know how to shake hands with the job interviewer, then you can be comfortable and enjoy the interaction, so people around you are going to be comfortable and enjoy themselves,” she said. “Having good manners is not about always doing something, but it’s about understanding the guidelines that are appropriate for that interaction.”
Studies have shown that the use of curse words has increased over the past few decades, so it could be said that profanities are now more acceptable in everyday language, but that’s not necessarily the case. A 2013 study by Kristin Jay, a psychologist at Marist College, found that the use of curse words was indeed on the upswing by comparing the data with a similar study done in 1986. The study involved a group of adults who recorded every swear word they heard for a year.
In an interview with Vox, Jay said the findings shouldn’t be taken too seriously because the participants may not have recorded every curse they heard, and because the study was concentrated in New England and Southern California.
Dealing with profanities has been an ongoing issue for centuries, according to Smith, and happens less and less in the workplace as compared to high school or college.
“We generalize competence based on observable behavior, and when you curse in public, it tells people that you’re unable to interact and communicate appropriately when things don’t go your way,” she said. “You lack the skills to be able to handle that situation, and it’s also instantly telling me that you can’t control your anger.”
Senning, great-great-grandson of etiquette authority Emily Post, said he thinks profanities haven’t become more or less acceptable to 21st century society, but the line between acceptable and unacceptable changes over time.
“The reason we call them cursing and profanities [and] the reason that language has impact and effect is that they aren’t acceptable in public,” he said. “It’s very common for a lot of the younger generation to casually use the word ‘sucks,’ whereas older generations often find that word really offensive, and bringing awareness to the way different generations perceive communications is one of the things we get asked to come address.”
Proper manners and etiquette are still vital, and Smith said even more so during a social situation that involves food.
“It’s impossible to talk with food in your mouth and not gross the other person out,” she said. “The whole idea of sharing a meal and of breaking bread with someone else is not only to nourish your body but also to enjoy that social interaction. We need table manners to enjoy being with other people.”
Since joining the Emily Post Institute, Senning has become more involved in the “family business” and the business of etiquette. The Post family has been the leading etiquette authority in the nation for almost a century. Spanning five generations, the EPI thinks of etiquette as simply social skills and relationship building tools.
Every year that he’s been involved with the EPI, Senning said there seems to have been a perception that the latest generation is becoming more rude and unmannered than the last, and he said that’s simply not true.
He said etiquette became much harder to sell during the 1960s, a time of great social change.
“The use of ‘Ms.’ instead of ‘Mrs.’ first came into common usage and acceptance by the U.S. government in the early 1970s,” Senning said. “The whole advent of feminism and the idea that you needed a title for women that wasn’t addressing their marital status in some ways is a bigger fundamental change to social structures and hierarchies that Internet communication is.”
Senning said the future of etiquette and etiquette consulting is to keep up with the changing times and increasingly diverse world and to be aware of diversity. He said the EPI is committed to changing with the times in terms of technology as well.
“Like everyone in the publishing industry, we are curious about and invested in transferring our content from the printed word to the digital word and figuring out ways to move our content to digital, whether that’s podcasts or a website that has a searchable reference,” he said. “I also think it’s important to continue to look at our message and what we’re saying so that the advice that we give is relevant in an increasingly complex world.”
Sage Daugherty is a junior journalism major who minds her P’s and Q’s. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.