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Are Your Manners Up to Date?

What you need to know about modern etiquette post-Emily Post.

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photo collage of woman yawning with emoji coming out of mouth
Arsh Raziuddin
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When Emily Post first published her book Etiquette in 1922 — at age 50 — she had a lot to say about how to practice good manners and spent 627 pages saying it. The book continues to be a big hit, as it is now in its 20th edition.

While I was growing up, Post was often quoted in my home. My mother was a stickler for the "pleases" and "thank yous" of life, imprinting my sisters and me with the importance of manners practically since we were toddlers.

With all due respect to Post, the guru of well-behaved gurus, there were some topics she didn’t cover in 1922 — the downside of being born 100 years before things like texting.   

So, here are some modern etiquette guidelines she might have raised had she been around today:

Emails

If someone sends a group email that does not require a group response, don’t "reply all." Answer directly to the sender. Nobody wants 20 emails from strangers that say “Congratulations, Marcia!” except maybe Marcia.

Don’t send e-cards that require watching and listening to a silly 15-second song. The first time I received one I thought, This is the end of greeting cards! By the 10th time, I was just annoyed. Especially since by then I knew if I didn’t watch the oh-so-adorable clip, I’d keep getting email reminders to watch it.

It’s acceptable to send condolence notes via email. Use a subject line like My thoughts are with you or Deepest sympathy. If appropriate, include a personal memory and let the recipient know it’s not necessary for them to respond. Emailed wedding invitations have also become increasingly acceptable. (Condolences to Emily Post, who I’m sure would be spinning in her grave at this etiquette evolution.)

Social engagements

You don’t need to give an entire rundown of why you aren’t available for lunch on Tuesday. I have the dentist at 9 then an appointment for my car tune-up … We get it. Everybody’s busy. Just say: “How about Wednesday?”

Don't text right before a party to say you can’t attend. Call. Any host running around preparing last-minute details is probably not reading texts.

If you do cancel late, you better have a good excuse.

A good excuse: “I have a raging fever and I’m coughing up green junk.” A bad excuse: One such as my friend Liz heard when her cousin’s family — five guests already p aid for by Liz — did not show up for a bar mitzvah. Concerned, she called the cousin the next day only to be told, “Oh, the kids had too much homework.” An impressive excuse: An hour before hosting a party, a guest called to say, “We aren’t coming. I had a huge fight with Stuart and can’t stand to sit across a table tonight looking at his face.” After I hung up, I wondered why she didn’t just say, Stuart has a raging fever and is coughing up green junk. But I’ve since come to admire the most honest excuse I’ve ever heard.

Grandchildren

Bite your tongue before offering parenting advice to your kids. Or in my case, stepkids. Yes, I have opinions but not credibility. Even my husband’s opinions are unwelcome and he’s a blood relative. (This etiquette tip was also true in 1922.)

Don’t whip out your phone to show pictures of your grandchildren unless asked. And even then, no endless swiping. Keep it to two or three pix, tops.

At the movies

Please go back to movie theaters. They need your support, and we don’t want them to disappear. But when you’re there, don’t gab during the show. If you absolutely can’t help yourself, stay home and watch Netflix.

Maybe it’s exciting to be the first to see the latest movie or series but no spoilers! My mother-in-law, bless her lovely soul, was the champion of this. You’d say, “We’re going to see Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction tonight,” and she’d say, “Is that the one where Glenn Close boils his kid’s bunny?”

At a restaurant

Don’t leave your phone on the table at a restaurant. I used to get depressed seeing what I assumed was a longtime couple dining together, and not talking. Now I get depressed seeing any couple eating together while both are busy on their phones.

If a restaurant bill is lopsided and you’re the one who drank more or ordered more, offer to pay more. Or at least cover the tip. My California friend Lynn does not eat. None of us knows how she survives as a human, but if several of us go out together, while everyone else is ordering entrees and appetizers and desserts, she’ll order soup. She has never complained about splitting the bill. So, it’s our job, as her friends, to say, “Lynn, you just cover your soup and we’ll split the rest.” Nobody’s saying you have to keep tabs on who ordered coleslaw and who asked for extra fries, but if there’s a big gap in consumption, be gracious about paying your share.

Strangers and acquaintances

For months, I’d been chatting with a neighbor whenever we ran into each other in our building elevator. After a while, it was just too awkward to ask, “What’s your name?” Make introductions sooner rather than later. But if it’s already later, admit to the awkwardness. (Or ask a third party, like another neighbor. “Who’s that redheaded guy who gets off on the fourth floor?”)

Another option: Take advantage of your age. I’m thrilled that I can finally get away with calling everyone "honey" or "dear." (“Hello, dear. Shall I push 4 for you?”)

If you absolutely must name-drop your Ivy League alma mater, please, at least try to wait a bit. Telling me you went to Yale within the first 10 minutes of meeting may be your way of searching for common ground. “You went to Yale? I went to Yale!” But it’s bragging. At least that’s how it sounds to us University of Illinois grads.

Be nice to waiters, bus drivers, grocery check-out people, and tollbooth operators. This isn't modern etiquette. It's always been true.

Emily Post wrote that “good etiquette rests on a foundation of consideration, respect, and honesty.” Thank you for considering these tips. I honestly appreciate it. Respectfully yours.

What do you think of the above? Are people's manners getting worse? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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