After much study, I have concluded that French must be the most difficult language for Americans to learn. You might think Adang or Asturian, Manx or Michif, would be far more daunting. But no, it’s definitely French. I reached this conclusion based on the fact that only a handful of my countrymen seem to know the meaning of the abbreviation R.s.v.p.
Repondez, s’il vous plait. “Please reply.” Or, more literally, “respond if you please.” Put a bit more rudely: “I’m trying to get a head count for the caterer and would appreciate if you deadbeats would tell me whether you’ll be bellying up to the trough.”
Sounds better in French, n’est-ce pas. Mais oui.
I’m no Perle Mesta (“the hostess with the mostess”), Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson, but once in a while I give a party. Printed invitations in the mail and all that. And every time, about half of the invitees don’t bother responding (though they show up anyway).
Try getting a head count for your next soiree. Try figuring out whether anyone got the invitation you mailed weeks ago. It’s not the ineptness of the postal service; it’s thoughtlessness. Manners are regarded as archaic, unnecessary and actually pointless. And I don’t mean eating peas with the butter knife.
Thank-you notes are now as rare as nosegays. Letters of condolence? You’re more likely to see a horse-drawn hearse. Written acknowledgments? Polite correspondence of any kind is vanishing. How the stationers remain in business is a mystery to me.
The cell phone is the single greatest indicator of the decline of civility. Clowns bray on their cell phones in airports and waiting rooms, and from behind the wheels of their cars. In theaters and cinemas the ringing of cell phones is routine. At public gatherings— funerals or graduations— ministers or some other functionary implore the boors to turn off the cell phone.
Look at the advice, how-to and miscellaneous section of The New York Times Book Review any Sunday, or the magazines for sale in any airport or supermarket checkout line. What are these about? You. Yours. Getting. Getting More. Quackery, bogus religions and sham diets. (Someone should start a magazine called Selfish. I know there’s a market for it.)
Emily Post, thou shouldst be living at this hour … Now she knew a thing or two about manners. Emily Post was born in Baltimore in 1873 (a bit of trivia for you) and departed our city at a tender age. We remember her because in 1922 she published what came to be called “Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage.” Before she died in 1960, her best seller went through 10 editions and 90 printings and was holy writ by those who did not wish to be, as Miss Post would put it, Mr. Parvenu.
Like the man in the Oliver Goldsmith poem, I came to Emily Post to scoff and remained to pray. There is something in her book for one and all. She warned against the dangers of trying to consume corn on the cob in public, instructed how to properly eat asparagus (É don’t take a long drooping stalk, hold it up in the air and catch the end of it in your mouth like a fish), and denounced the cigar as a public nuisance.
I love her book, especially the early versions of it. I love the characters in her anecdotes of do’s and don’ts: the Worldlys, the Normans, the Lovejoys, the “Bobo” Gildings, the Littlehouses, Constance Style, Jim Smartlington and his bride, Clubwin Doe and young Struthers, and the ever confident Mrs. Oldname and Richan Vulgar.
Miss Post’s world sounds like P.G. Wodehouse. Like Jeeves or Bertie Wooster. But it’s not. She speaks of things that really matter. She was more of a philosopher than one would imagine. I place her squarely between the Nazarene and Lao Tzu.
She understood sham and vulgarity. The most advertised commodity is not always intrinsically the best, but is sometimes merely the product of a company with plenty of money to spend on advertising.
She was no snob. Thus Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted birth …
She advised wisely on deportment: Do nothing that can either annoy or offend the sensibilities of others, sums up the principal rules for conduct under all circumstances.
Social climbers disgusted her. Flag wavers, too. The American flag is the most wonderful emblem in the whole world, and ours is the most glorious country too, but that does not mean that it is good taste to wave our flag for no reason whatever.
A true diplomat, she could have advised on foreign affairs. There is much excuse for not speaking foreign languages, but there is no excuse whatever for having offensive manners and riding rough-shod over people who own the land— not we, who seem to think we do.
And my favorite Emily Post-it-note, suitable for framing: A Maryland lady, still living on the estate granted to her family three generations before the Revolution, is quite as polite to her friends’ servants as to her friends themselves. When you see a woman in silks and sables and diamonds speak to a little errand girl or a footman or a scullery maid as though they were the dirt under her feet, you may be sure of one thing: she hasn’t come a very long way from the ground herself.
I fail to live up to Emily Post’s code every day. But I like knowing that once upon a time, the code mattered, and someone did live up to it.