Slate’s Laura Miller on the modern state of etiquette rules.

Laura Miller on Meeting the Heirs to the Etiquette Empire

Laura Miller on Meeting the Heirs to the Etiquette Empire

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May 2 2017 1:11 PM

Meeting the Heirs to the Etiquette Empire

Slate’s Laura Miller on how Emily Post’s descendants are trying to keep etiquette advice a thriving business.

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Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Hemera Technologies/Ablestock; Library of Congress.

If you’ve ever heard any advice on etiquette—from table manners to how to plan a wedding—it probably originated from Emily Post. The former high-society debutante-turned-writer wrote her first etiquette guide in 1922, and it set the standards for good behavior and courtesy for decades to come.

These days, the Post empire—which includes books, seminars, and podcasts—is headed by Post’s great-great-grandchildren Dan and Lizzie. Laura Miller, Slate’s book critic and host of the Slate Academy A Year of Great Books, visited the heirs in Vermont for a recent article, “To the Manners Born.”

In the podcast—which is exclusive to Slate Plus members—Miller talks to Chau Tu about her experience eating mussels with the etiquette masters and how the Emily Post Institute hopes to stay relevant in modern times.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chau Tu: Tell me, before this story and before this trip, did you know or follow any of Emily Post’s rules of etiquette? Do you consider yourself an especially polite person?

Laura Miller: Well, I think probably everybody thinks of themselves as polite, but I hadn’t ever really consulted one of these big etiquette manuals because most of the time people turn to them when they’re planning a wedding or a funeral or they need to know the rules for this or that part of life, passage of life, whatever you want to call it, that we have a certain ritual or formality around. I haven’t done any of those things. I probably glanced through a few etiquette manuals in my time, but I think that my editor, Laura Bennett, who was the person who really got the idea for this piece, she just got married and I think that all of the things that you have to do when you get married make you very familiar with etiquette manuals and just what a sort of weird hold over they sometimes seem to be. I think that was what sparked the idea for her.

Did you feel nervous at all about meeting these masters of etiquette?

Well, I was a little bit, but when I first met them, it was at their offices. I had the chance to talk to them for a while and they were so nice and warm and really not intimidating or fussy, that I was more relaxed by the time we sat down to dinner than I would have been if I had just met them for dinner.

How old are they about? They’re pretty young, right?

Yeah, they are. This is the new generation of Posts, which is the fourth or the fifth depending on how you count it, since Emily Post. They took over the company from Lizzie’s dad, who was really the person who brought the Emily Post empire into the 21st century, even though he did it a little bit before the 21st century started. He’s semi-retired now. They’re the up-and-coming generation. [Lizzie is] in her 30s and [Dan] I think just turned 40. They’re still relatively young. He had a whole other life before he became an etiquette expert and they are sort of poised to take the Emily Post brand into the future.

Do you find that they are incorporating a lot of modern techniques or modernities in general into the etiquette rules now?

Yeah, what’s interesting about them is they have a really long-term perspective on the question of etiquette. Back in the mid ‘90s, the Emily Post Institute did a big sort of soul-searching brand survey and they decided that they were not going to be just about old-fashioned rituals that people might still want to practice on special occasions. They really wanted to develop a philosophy of etiquette, which they did back then, which is based on their principles of consideration, respect, and honesty. Their attitude now, going forward, is that there are not that many special challenges when it comes to, say, technology as long as you are saying what’s the most considerate, respectful, and honest thing that I can do. The challenge is less how to cope with modern manners, which they don’t think are getting any worse than manners were in the past, but the challenge is really to find a way to bring etiquette advice to people in a way that they can obviously make money and reach the maximum number of people.

They have a podcast and they sell ads on the podcast, but they’re also working on web videos that people will pay to watch that will tell you how to eat at a formal dinner and how to observe various manners in corporate settings, that kind of thing. They’re locating groups of people who have a special need for the information that they’ve got and finding new ways to get to them. That’s really how they’re taking Emily Post into the future. It’s less about oh, what are the manners for texting, because really it’s not that different from any other set of manners once you understand the underlying values of a system of manners. But it is harder in the age of the internet for people to, I guess “monetize” is the best word to use, etiquette advice because it’s so easy for someone to say, “How do I address wedding invitations? I think I’ll just Google that.”

So that’s one of their biggest obstacles right now?

That is I think the really big challenge for them. I think that they feel that every generation of people feels that manners are in a crisis because, as Dan put it to me, manners are constantly changing. They change as society changes and when you’re living through those changes, you view that as a decline, but it isn’t necessarily the case that that’s what it is. One of the great examples that he offered was of the thank you email, which is sort of on a cusp between being a polite thing to do and an inconsiderate thing to do. When somebody asks you for a piece of information and you send it to them, do you expect them to send you an email back that just says thank you, or are they cluttering up your inbox? Is that a necessary politeness or is that just giving you one more piece of digital information you have to clear out of your inbox?

As Dan put it, there’s an emerging courtesy around not cluttering up people’s digital lives in that way, but there are still people who feel like if they do you the favor of giving you a piece of information you should thank them for it. That’s an example of manners evolving. The people who don’t say thank you and the people who say thank you are both trying to be considerate. It really depends on what the person who’s going to get that thank you email thinks of it more than anything else.

You sat down for a dinner with Dan and Lizzie. What was that experience like?

Well, they’re just two really warm, friendly, good-natured people. I think that when you say Emily Post, it conjures up this image of very snooty WASPs with very archaic and persnickety manners that are going to be very judgy. They’re not like that at all. They live in Vermont, around Burlington; Lizzie lives in Burlington and Dan lives like out in the woods. Their family has been living in Vermont for a couple of generations now. If you’ve ever been to Burlington, you understand that there’s this kind of gravitational hippie-ness that sets in. I don’t think anyone can live in Burlington for very long without slowly becoming some kind of a hippie. That’s what they’re like. They completely cop to that. They’re sort of not what anyone would expect Emily Post descendants to be like because there is that super WASP-y cliché. I’m not saying they’re not a bit WASP-y, but if you were to meet them, you would just think oh, here’s this kind of groovy Vermont person, not a descendant of one of the Four Hundred.

Yeah, you would think hippie is sort of the opposite of what Emily Post was meant to represent in a way.

Yeah, and I mean you don’t really imagine them living in a mansion with a boat house in Newport. Their lives are much more modest than that. Dan used to be an avant garde dancer and he studied something called corporeal mime in Paris. He’s kind of New Age-y. He used a lot of kind of slightly woo-woo expressions when we talked. He talked a lot about waiting to see what the universe would bring. Lizzy told me that if she was every going to be doing anything else she’d like to be a rancher’s wife. She had had this dream vacation a few years before I met her at this ranch, this working ranch that people come sort of vacation at and do work on the ranch. She just loved it so much. She showed me these photos of her in jeans and a cowboy hat riding across the plains in a way that is really not what I anticipated. They’ve drifted pretty far from this sort of debutante world that their great-great-grandmother wrote about.

Do you think their main audience is still people who want to plan weddings and things like that? Who’s their main audience right now?

Well, they have listeners to their podcast and they have people who contact the podcast and the Emily Post Institute with questions about everyday etiquette dilemmas, so I think people still have questions about what is the polite thing to do in any given situation, or people who feel that somebody else has violated the code of politeness and they want someone to say yes, that was rude, which is a big part of what sort of etiquette mavens do these days. I think that they have a significant corporate audience because when you think about it, the corporate workplace is a place where the stakes are really high, where people really want to succeed, where they’re likely to be thrown into the company of people with different backgrounds and maybe different standards of behavior and they want to get it right. The big part of their business is doing presentations at corporate gatherings.

I think some of their videos probably focus on that as well as on the sort of wedding funeral life passage, what do I do if I’m being presented to the queen or having dinner at the White House or what do I call an ambassador, you know stuff like that if you happen to be thrown into that situation you think oh my God, what do I do? A very formal dinner, which utensils do you use when? Where do you put your bread knife when you’re not using it? I mean, there are a few things like that that I think that they do convey, but again, those are things that are a little bit easier to get online than they were even 10 years ago. You know, it is a challenge to them to find a way to still capture that audience. That’s a pretty diverse audience.

Speaking of diverse, one of the issues that they are particularly concerned with is just how to politely navigate an America that is very ethnically diverse, very religiously diverse. If you get invited to someone’s house for Passover and you’re not that familiar with Jewish customs, what do you do? The same if you have friends who are Muslims, what are their holidays about? If they invite you to participate in one of them, what do you do? [These are] things that did not come up for Emily when she was writing about New York high society in 1920.

Were there any good tips that you learned on this trip in meeting with them?

Well, Lizzie reassured me, because we both ordered mussels at this really wonderful restaurant outside of Burlington that they took me to, I had always felt a little bit bad about mopping up the broth for mussels with your bread, which is kind of the best part of ordering mussels. She was like, “Oh, absolutely do it.” She showed me how to do it. You tear off a piece of bread and you put it on your fork and you mop it with the fork so that you’re not sticking your fingers in this kind of mushy broth. She said, “Oh, absolutely. It’s fine to do it. My parents would say just get in there. Don’t miss a drop.” That was really nice.