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What Etiquette and Good Manners Can Teach Us About Handling Change


What Etiquette and Good Manners Can Teach Us About …

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By Maria Carolan
Editor, MindEdge Learning

If the name Emily Post rings a bell, the memory is probably not a joyful one. For many, the author of the Etiquette manual, first published in 1922, is synonymous with rules, proper decorum, and painful childhood memories of writing thank-you notes in cursive. At least that’s the case for me.

But upon further inspection, it seems Post’s work has been largely misinterpreted. Her life story has also been forgotten. Examining both yields insights relevant to our own experiences of a rapidly changing world.

Emily Post was a Gilded Age heiress who wrote the definitive American guide to being well-behaved. This much is common knowledge. But less is known about how Post became the queen of etiquette. As is often the case, her career was borne of necessity. When Post was a young mother of two, her husband cheated on her so faithlessy that he became the target of a public blackmail scheme. Eventually, Post had to divorce him. Forced to provide for herself and her children, the socialite turned to writing.

Post first published a string of novels, which sold modestly. Her agent begged her to write something practical that might make money for both of them. What Post, a finishing school graduate, knew best was how to act in polite society. So, at age 50, she grudgingly sat down and drafted the rulebook that would make her famous. Etiquette was an instant hit among America’s large population of recent immigrants and other upwardly mobile readers who were afraid of letting silly faux pas stifle their ambitions. Post’s book quickly became a bestseller—but she didn’t allow herself to cruise on its success.

After Etiquette’s release, Post would diligently update and reissue the more than 700-page volume every five years, to keep its teachings current as social norms shifted. As media evolved and audiences turned from the page to the airwaves for guidance, Post met them there. A regular guest on various radio shows, by the 1930s Post was spending so much time dispatching from her couch that she gave the microphone she clutched a name–Suzy. Today, Post’s descendants run a website that dispenses etiquette advice on topics such as texting at the dinner table and avoiding politics in small talk. Post’s legacy is one of reinvention. She kept her output timely, though its subject was timeless.

What makes etiquette evergreen? To answer this question, we must distinguish between “etiquette” and “manners,” which are often used interchangeably, but which Post insisted are different. Post’s website defines the pillars of etiquette as consideration, respect, and honesty. These qualities are set in stone. Manners, according to Post, are the actions we take to demonstrate consideration, respect, and honesty toward others. Unlike etiquette, manners change constantly as society evolves.

To appreciate the importance of etiquette, we must also confront class. Good manners are often considered the sole domain of the rich and powerful. Suspicion of manners is well-founded. What passes for “polite” or “rude” often makes no logical sense and seems to require mind-reading ability—or insider information. For example, why do some hosts expect you to take your shoes off when you enter their homes, while others look offended if you start kicking off your heels? What’s more, manners are environment-specific. The shoes-on-vs.-shoes-off example depends on the culture of the people who live in each home. These cultures will inevitably vary. Manners can be so frustratingly arbitrary as to make anyone think conspiracy’s afoot.

Post would agree with this complaint. She believed manners are arbitrary conventions, always in flux; that is why she worked into her old age to keep up with them. But etiquette is more democratic than elitist. As forces like technology continually reshape how we interact, the rules of engagement change, too—and they change for everyone. Accelerated growth can make our heads spin (almost literally). In MindEdge’s Change Management courses, we emphasize that experiencing change triggers the same area of the brain as experiencing pain; for the individual, change is pain. Understanding that we’re uncomfortable in times of change can help us go easier on ourselves, and strengthen our compassion for others who are grappling with new realities. We can’t prevent change, but we can treat ourselves and others with kindness as our world transforms.

The truth is, no one—not even Post herself—could tell you the kindest thing to do in every scenario. But she worked hard to stay current and give us her best guess. Post’s commitment to helping others act considerately, respectfully, and honestly can be a source of inspiration as we tread uncertain paths into the future.

For a complete listing of MindEdge’s course offerings on Change Management, click here.

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