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Minding our manners

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)
Tina Daunt Los Angeles Times

Etiquette maven Emily Post has a lot of company on the bookshelves these days, and it’s quite a colorful crowd. There’s a man who calls himself Mr. Social Grace and a socialite known as the “Doyenne of Decorum.” There are the Etiquette Grrls and the Fabulous Girls, offering paperback guides on good behavior, with a dollop of sauciness. Even designer Kate Spade has joined the group, making her writing debut earlier this year with three advice volumes, one called simply “Manners.”

Not so long ago, etiquette books were ridiculed as relics of a bygone era. Now, as society grows fed up with increasing rudeness, the remakes are everywhere. Emily Post’s progeny are part of the trend – revisiting, re-imaging and reissuing great-grandmama’s advice for a modern age.

“We live in a fast-paced, somewhat informal world, where people are just going, going, going,” says Peter Post, who made the best-seller list last year with his book “Manners for Men.” “Rudeness begets stress, and stress begets rudeness.”

Who hasn’t been irked by a cell-phone conversation at their favorite restaurant? Or had someone not hold a door for them when their arms were full? Or been glared at by a salesperson who’d rather talk on the phone than help a customer?

People wear shorts to cocktail parties and spam their friends with e-mail. They gossip about co-workers and use foul language.

And now it has reached a tipping point. “People are craving a little civility,” Peter Post says.

Others say the return of etiquette is a rebellion against, well, rebellion. During the ‘60s, a philosophy of “do your own thing” and “live and let live” took hold, freeing people from what they viewed as stodgy structures but leaving them largely unprepared for formal interactions.

Now, as we live in closer proximity to each other and as new technologies change communication rules, people find themselves caught in awkward situations grappling for the proper response.

“The rules may be changing so fast that we don’t know what they are anymore,” says etiquette scholar Kerry Ferris, an assistant professor of sociology at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. “Sometimes we need them spelled out for us. Rules make us feel secure.”

To satisfy that demand, more than 100 titles – most of them published within the past five years – can be found on The most recent “Emily Post’s Etiquette” – the 16th edition – has outsold its predecessor 2-to-1. An update by Emily Post’s great-granddaughter-in-law, Peggy Post, is due out in October.

While the nonprofit think tank Public Agenda was preparing its 2002 report called “Rudeness in America,” it discovered that 81 percent of Americans were convinced that people are less considerate than they were 20 years ago.

“There is a feeling that we are losing a little bit of what makes communities work, if we don’t pay a little more attention to courtesy,” says Jean Johnson, vice president of Public Agenda. “We are so rushed and so crowded that we have lost the time to be considerate and polite.

“Maybe this isn’t the most important thing in the world, it’s not a matter of life and death, but it really bothers people.”

Spade, whose classic-style handbags have made her a favorite among young women, says people are searching for ways “to navigate through our hectic lives with a bit more ease.”

“The way we interact and communicate is constantly evolving, and it can get tricky,” Spade says. Although times have changed since Emily Post first wrote her book in 1922, the Posts say the underlying principles of good manners have stayed the same.

“Etiquette is not about social climbing or social status,” great-grandson Peter Post says. “It’s really not about what fork to use. It’s about you and I having a great interaction when we’re together. It’s about treating people with consideration, respect and honesty.”

The Post family has also reinvigorated Emily Post’s Institute for Etiquette, founded in the 1920s.

Manners books were considered required reading during the 1940s and 1950s. Parents often gave their daughters an etiquette book as a high-school graduation gift. But that tradition ended in the 1960s.

“Etiquette really does have a pendulum kind of swing to it over the years,” Peggy Post says. “It was swinging the other way in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Now it’s swinging back.”

Peggy Post (who is Peter Post’s sister-in-law) has assumed the role once held by Emily Post, who died in 1960. Her updated version of the old tome will address many new topics, including road rage (never make an obscene gesture), e-mail etiquette (keep it short and sweet) and same-sex marriages (guest etiquette is the same as for a traditional wedding celebration).

As the Posts carry on the family legacy, they are finding the space a bit crowded in the bookstores. Other authors include longtime etiquette experts such as Miss Manners, aka Judith Martin, but many are newcomers who are winging it with their own guidelines for getting along. The advice is far from elaborate or complicated. Often, it’s irreverent. Some of it is ridiculous.

“Manners will make you fabulous,” Canadians Kim Izzo and Ceri Marsh write in their book, “The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Decorum.” “Manners are sexy. The well-mannered get invited to more dinner parties and have a wider array of friends and colleagues who admire them.”

And it’s not just about writing the perfect thank-you note and setting a proper table. According to the book, young women need to know how to handle a fair-weather friend (politely tell her you’re really busy), how to buy your first home and how to be a gracious guest (always remember to bring the host or hostess a gift. The best choice is a bottle of wine).

Etiquette GRRLS Lesley Carlin and Honore McDonough Ervin infused their book with prep-school properness. “It is indeed a tacky, rude world which we inhabit,” they write in their first book, “Things You Need to Be Told.” “We, the Etiquette Grrls, have decided that things are simply getting out of hand and thus we have taken it upon ourselves to … provide you, our esteemed peers, with a helpful guide.”

Like vintage etiquette guides, their books cover good behavior and appearance – but with a definite edge. “We must band together in order to vanquish our common foe, the inappropriately casual dresser,” the women write. They list two-dozen clothing no-nos, including tube tops, white shoes, flip-flops and anything made of polyester knit.

Mr. Social Grace – Charles Purdy of San Francisco – gives readers a short history lesson in his book, “Urban Etiquette.” “The past four decades have seen a major cultural revolution in the United States,” writes Purdy, who answers etiquette questions in the San Francisco Weekly’s “Social Grace” advice column. “We’ve made drastic changes in the way we deal with other people. Some of these changes were for the better, but many were for the worse.

“True, we began to do away with a lot of societal ills – racism, sexism, classism, and so on – but at the same time, we wrongly began to get rid of a lot of good manners, too.”

In researching the issues, Marsh says she discovered that many young adults did not learn the rules of etiquette from their baby-boomer parents.

“Obviously, society has shifted hugely since the 1960s, when everything was about ‘me, me, me,’” says Marsh, 36. “Maybe the world works better when we’re considerate. We’re traveling more. We’re living in multicultural cities. It’s important to be gracious. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a priss.”

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