"When Vice President Dick Cheney pelted his hunting companion with a round of birdshot last winter, all manner of media seized the opportunity to criticize Cheney’s handling of the shooting and poke fun at such an egregious error. Then there was the inevitable question: What does one do when one commits such a faux pas? “Well, you could send flowers,” quips Peggy Post, considered today’s most prominent expert on etiquette. “The point is, fess up. I blew it, and I’m so sorry.”
Post who was visiting Indianapolis on a book tour for Excuse Me, But I Was Next … (Collins; $19.95) last week, confirms that etiquette — good manners — is certainly a matter of consequence, whether or not you’re the vice president. Indeed, wars have been started for less. Post has written a dozen books on the subject and authors several monthly advice columns.
“Etiquette really smoothes relationships and helps people get along,” Post tells me in between sips of hot tea. I’ve chosen a bottle of Evian, realizing, much to my chagrin, that the bottle has one of those sport caps that are anything but graceful. Do you suck on the bottle or squirt the water in your mouth? I leave the water untouched.
But Post quickly puts me at ease: “Etiquette is not all about form and tradition — it’s a code of behavior based on being considerate and respectful, being honest with tact.” I confess: The bottle is really awkward. Post replies, “Yes, but the water sure is good!”
Post, great-granddaughter-in-law of etiquette maven Emily Post, travels around the country spreading the gospel of good manners. It’s a sound gospel, founded on inclusive principles. “It’s really the golden rule: How would I like to be treated?” Post says. Would you feel put out if your best friend neglected to thank you for that wedding gift? How about if someone cuts in front of you when a new line opens at the grocery store?
These are just two common situations challenging us to be on our best behavior. Post tells me the Emily Post Institute (www.emilypost.com) receives roughly 1,000 letters a month addressing questions like these, and was the impetus for her book. The book offers straightforward advice on topics as current as e-mail spam from friends and as age-old as dealing with houseguests who have outstayed their welcome (yes — there is a kind way to ask them to leave).
Peggy Post refashioned Emily Post Etiquette (originally written in 1946) on its 50th anniversary, adding 18 chapters on everything from e-mail and telephone manners, same sex marriages, fitness center etiquette and even snowboarding.
In case you were wondering, the answer is yes: You should still send that hand-written thank you note for a wedding gift. As far as cutting in line, Post says to ask yourself, “Do you feel safe saying something?” If the answer is yes, as the book’s title suggests, a simple, “Excuse me, but I was ahead of you. I believe I’m next,” may do the trick.
As a journalist, I’m not proud of my colleagues who interrupt at press conferences; I’ve never seen rudeness elicit an honest or helpful answer from anyone. Post’s take: “It’s really not OK to interrupt. We live in a world of sound bites. People are trying to be assertive and they’re coming across as aggressive.” Those journalists who have a reputation for being fair, she adds, are usually the ones who have decent manners. On the other hand, “Some people equate phoniness with etiquette. They think it’s the form and not the substance … it’s really the other way around.” In the case of politics, “Sincerity is what makes the difference.”
Or to put it another way: “As Emily Post used to say, it really doesn’t matter what fork you use; it matters if you’re enjoying the people you’re with.”