What Is Etiquette in the 1990s? Peggy Post Continues the Legacy

Article excerpt

WHO NEEDS IT? Not you! You know which fork to use when. You never crook your pinkie when holding a cup. And you're always on time for appointments. Etiquette? Get serious!

That attitude is likely to give a high priestess of manners a hissy fit. Most people, it seems, haven't a clue what etiquette means. Etiquette, in the 1990s, is about niceties like not cutting off motorists when switching lanes, or not swatting anyone with your backpack on the subway.

"Etiquette is a code of behavior based on consideration and thoughtfulness, and it's a fallacy that only certain people need it," said Peggy Post, a great-granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post, who for almost eight decades has stood for what's proper in social behavior. Peggy Post has inherited the legacy: She has just updated "Emily Post's Etiquette" for the 75th-anniversary edition, which will be published by HarperCollins this month. "The whole thing about etiquette is to make life easier," she said, "not to make it more formal or rigid. Everyone needs guidelines." What is also needed before tackling the new volume, the 16th edition, is a session or two of strength training. The new dos and don'ts of making life easier take up 845 tightly packed pages. Is it OK to cut lettuce in a salad? Yes. (The taboo started because knives used to become corroded from salad dressing.) As for e-mail, bear in mind that it's not necessarily private. Chat rooms? Remember that using capital letters means you're shouting. On the subject of personal questions: How do you answer someone who asks your age, assuming you don't want to reveal it? Post advised answering with humor and offered some alternatives: "Old enough to know better," "49 and holding." Her own age? "I'm starting this about the same age as Emily did," she said cagily. Emily Post was 51 in 1922 when her first etiquette guide, "Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage," was published. A society matron with homes in New York City, Tuxedo Park, N.Y., and Bar Harbor, Maine, she held rigidly to decorum. In a slight updating of the book in 1936, she advised her readers that "the bachelor girl can on occasion go out alone with any unmarried man she knows well, if the theater she goes to, or the restaurant she dines at, be of conventional character." (This at a time when "bachelor girls" dated mere acquaintances, or so said a 1937 Saturday Evening Post article on Post.) Divorced couples were known to speak to one another, but Post took the position that when the divorced meet, they act like total strangers. By the following year, a completely revised edition faced up to the times. Post may have been a gentlewoman who favored the old school of manners, but she was also a businesswoman. When she died in 1960, she had completely revised the book nine times. It is still, according to a spokesman for the 435 Barnes & Noble stores nationwide, the best-selling book in its category. Reflecting the changes in society, Peggy Post's style is not quite as formal as Emily Post's, but neither is it as breezy or irreverent as many of the current crop of etiquette books. "This is a reference book," she said firmly. Margaret "Peggy" Post, who was born in Washington, was a manager at Chemical Bank in New York when she met Allen Post, an investment counse lor, in 1977. "I was taken aback when I found out who he was," she recalled of their first dinner date, when a reference to another Emily prompted a mention of his great-grandmother. "But he was such a natural, down-to-earth person I didn't think about it." They married in 1979 and live in Fairfield County, Conn. …