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Emily Post's Etiquette, 17th Edition (Thumb Indexed)
By Peggy Post
Harper Collins
HC, 896 pages US$39.95/C$56.95
ISBN: 0-0662-0957-9

A classic updated for the modern era

By Steven Martinovich
web posted December 13, 2004

Emily Post's Etiquette, 17th EditionLost in the sea of news about athletes and spectators brawling at sporting events, political campaigns dominated by mudslinging and an apparent general decline in politeness and courtesy is some good news. Generations X and Y often look back in time for clues on how to comport themselves. Many are rejecting the permissive attitudes of their Baby Boomer parents and are instead looking to the examples of their grandparents.

They can also look to the 17th edition of Emily Post's Etiquette, updated by Peggy Post, great-granddaughter-in-law to Emily Post. New times call for changes to the traditional canon and with this new edition readers will be treated to discussions on same-sex marriages and re-gifting alongside traditional items like how to set a table and when it is proper to send a thank you note. Despite the changes, the original intent of Post's 1922 version also informs this new edition.

Juggling Acts

How on earth do you juggle your drink and your plate and shake hands at the same time? Only with great difficulty, so try to find a place to set one of the items down.

Standing close to a table could solve the problem. Just make sure the table isn't set or decorated in such a way that even the temporary addition of a wineglass spoils the effect or your dish could be confused with whatever is being served. Another option: Some people are poised enough to joke about their dilemma, asking someone to hold their glass while they extend their hand. The important thing is to make the effort to greet another person in a pleasant way.

What to do with toothpicks after you've eaten an hors d'oeuvre? There's usually a small receptacle on or near the food platter for used ones. If not, hold any items (including drink stirrers) in your napkin until you find a wastebasket. Don't place used items on the buffet table unless a waste receptacle is available.

From Emily Post's Etiquette, 17th Edition by Peggy Post. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.

"Emily knew when she wrote Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage (1922) that it was a time for a reappraisal of the Victorian rules of etiquette. As a result, her revolutionary book discounted manners as rigid rules, tied them instead to ethics and values, and saw them as belong to people of all walks of life. She also stressed that manners should be fluid, adaptable not only to the times but to the situation at hand. The same is true today. Considering the stuffiness of the etiquette books that had gone before, my great-grandmother-in-law would have probably told her readers to 'lighten up!' had the phrase been around in her day."

Etiquette is divided into nine major sections which include categories like "Everyday Etiquette," Dining and Entertaining," "Weddings," and "You and Your Job." Virtually every conceivable social situation is covered and Post carefully explains how and why -- which perhaps may be more important -- one is expected to behave in a certain manner. Not surprisingly much of what Post advocates is fairly common sense -- decades of casual attitudes still haven't erased most of what we learn as young children -- though most readers will likely need a refresher in some areas.

Etiquette, like everything else in society, must evolve to stay relevant. In that spirit, Post deals with some issues that her great-grandmother-in-law couldn't have even dreamt of. Addressed are items like e-mail and cyberspace etiquette -- it turns out there is a polite way to flame, how not to be a buffoon with your cell phone and how to instill manners in your teenager. Though the issues are new, the same spirit of courtesy and respect for others are at the heart of Post's recommendations.

Of course, updating a book on etiquette carries its own risks, particularly when it comes to modifying time-honored rules. Traditionalists will no doubt raise an eyebrow at the unfortunate assertion that you can wear white after Labor Day or that it is now permissible for women who are guests at a wedding to wear white or black and even pantsuits. Also likely to rise their ire is Post's comfort at the use of e-mail in the place of traditional notes on paper, extending even to sometimes replying to RSVPs electronically. Some will definitely feel more comfortable relying on older editions as guides to traditional etiquette.

Although some prefer a standard of manners that many would consider outmoded today, Etiquette stresses the same underlying rationale for good manners that Emily Post promoted. Manners are not a social convention designed to show your superiority or a straightjacket for behavior, they exist to show how thoughtful you are of others. Thanks to today's youth we're experiencing a minor revival of that virtue and Etiquette remains the gold standard for anyone who believes that being well-mannered enriches those around us and society as a whole.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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