If you’ve been reading Uncommon Courtesy for a while, you’ll notice we talk about Emily Post a lot. Obviously a lot of that is because Emily Post is pretty much the first name in etiquette (apologies to Miss Manners). Part of that is because of her ubiquitousness, but also because her original Etiquette holds up so well as an entertaining read.
Dorothy Parker, as a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1927, thought so too and wrote a really wonderful review of that year’s edition of the book. She saw it as a story (Emily Post was originally a novelist!) as much as a series of instructions, noting that the addition of a repeating set of characters “gives the work all the force and the application of a morality play.” Legend has it that the Mrs. Worldlys and Mr. Gildings of the book were based on the real people of upper New York society that Emily Post knew.
While she loves the “sprightliness of Mrs. Post’s style,” Parker finds fault with the person who perfectly follows every rule of the lengthy tome.
Those who have mastered etiquette, who are entirely, impeccably right, would seem to arrive at a point of exquisite dullness. The letters and the conversations of the correct, as quoted by Mrs. Post, seem scarcely worth the striving for. The rules for the finding of topics of conversation fall damply on the spirit. “You talk of something you have been doing or thinking about–planting a garden, planning a journey, contemplating a journey, or similar safe topics. Not at all a bad plan is to ask advice: “‘We want to motor through the South. Do you know about the roads?’ Or, ‘I’m thinking of buying a radio. Which make do you think is best?’”
I may not dispute Mrs. Post. If she says that is the way you should talk, then, indubitably, that is the way you should talk. But though it be at the cost of that future social success I am counting on, there is no force great enough ever to make me say, “I’m thinking of buying a radio.”
Of course, this is part of what we are trying to accomplish in our discussions on etiquette here on Uncommon Courtesy, exactly how to find the balance between the perfectly polite while still retaining your personality and meshing all the different ideas that people have about etiquette with what is generally considered to be correct. Anyway, go read the whole essay, it’s fantastic.