How I fell in love with Emily Post

JONATHAN KAY

When I first read Etiquette in 1995, I was motivated by romantic desperation.

Emily Post, circa June 20, 1912

"Linda," my girlfriend at the time, was an intimidating, Ivy League-schooled paragon of comportment and breeding. My own comparatively boorish ways were a subject of frequent complaint in the relationship. (Other subjects of complaint included my political views, my friends, my wardrobe and my reading habits -- this was not what one might call an "empowering" union ... on my end, at least.) Emily Post's primer on manners, I hoped, might help ingratiate me to my cashmere-clad uptown girl.

I took to Etiquette as soon as I cracked open the cover. The orderly system of rules it set out reminded me of the statutes I was then studying in law school, as well as the systems of equations I'd mastered in my engineering days. Once committed to memory, I imagined, Etiquette would allow me to attain the measure of social grace that had eluded me -- in many instances, quite spectacularly -- since childhood.

And it did -- though not in the way I'd at first imagined.

The same copy of Etiquette I bought 14 years ago -- the 15th edition, updated by Emily's granddaughter-in-law Elizabeth -- remains within reach of my office computer console, its pages marked by my earnest Linda-era annotations. Not surprisingly, most of the passages I highlighted focus on male-female relations. Here are a few samples, picked at random:

"Traditionally, a woman steps into a revolving door ahead of a man if it is already moving. If it is stationery, he steps in first and gets it moving slowly so that she may step into the section behind him."

"[Umbrellas] should always be carried close to the body, point down ... An umbrella shared by a couple walking together should be held by the taller of the two, both for safety and for comfort."

"When a man invites a woman to dine at a smorgasbord restaurant, she accompanies him to the buffet so that she may see the delectable displays of food and choose a little of everything that appeals to her."

I will admit that this all sounds somewhat ridiculous at first blush: At the end of the day, few among us truly care where our friends point their umbrellas, or who follows whom into a hotel lobby. But the rituals Post catalogues are not ends in and of themselves. Rather, they are behavioural phrases that make up a sort of language. By getting its diction and idioms right, we demonstrate that the welfare and social comfort of others are prominent in our thoughts.

Though born into the high society of Gilded Age America, she saw ostentatious displays of ultra-refined manners as a species of gross vulgarity. The whole point of etiquette, she stressed, was to put others at ease -- not to demonstrate your own superiority.

Over time, the practice of etiquette -- like any program of repeated behaviour -- truly changes one's outlook, not just one's outward manner. That was my experience, at any rate: The need to hew to a set code of conduct inevitably caused me to concentrate more on the outward effect of my words and actions, a habit of mind that stuck with me even when I forgot how to hold my oyster fork, or who was supposed to go first through a doorway.

In this regard, I don't think there is a book that has ever been as misunderstood as Etiquette, nor a historical figure as misunderstood as Emily Post. In the received wisdom, she is seen as the queen of the la-di-da, dispensing tips on the correct way to hold opera glasses or fasten a tiara. But as Laura Claridge writes, the author who created the Etiquette franchise was an entirely unpretentious woman whose favourite meal was meatloaf and ice cream. Though born into the high society of Gilded Age America, she saw ostentatious displays of ultra-refined manners as a species of gross vulgarity. The whole point of etiquette, she stressed, was to put others at ease -- not to demonstrate your own superiority.

This was an aspect of etiquette, I fear, that Linda never quite grasped ( just as I skipped the chapter on not revisiting old relationships in print). Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that our relationship eventually combusted, notwithstanding my pathetically eager efforts at self-improvement -- for reasons mostly (but not entirely) unrelated to my difficulties navigating umbrellas, doors and smorgasbords.

I harbour no ill will, however. Every relationship -- even a failed one -- leaves us with something positive. In the case of Linda, it’s still sitting on my desk.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Jonathan Kay "How I fell in love with Emily Post." National Post, (Canada) 6 January, 2009.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Jonathan Kay, and the National Post.

photo credit: U.S. Library of Congress

THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Kay is Comment Pages Editor of the National Post newspaper. In addition, he is a columnist for the National Post op-ed page, and a regular contributor to Commentary magazine and the New York Post. His free-lance articles have appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and various other publications. In April, 2002, he was awarded Canada's National Newspaper Award for Critical Writing. In June, 2004, he was awarded a National Newspaper Award for Editorial Writing.

Copyright © 2009 National Post




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