How to Be a Polite Job Applicant

Dress sharp!

Dress sharp!

Just so you know that I do actually know of which I speak, I have quite a bit of HR experience in addition to being a self proclaimed etiquette expert.

The Application

  • Make sure you fully read the job posting and follow all instructions. If they need your resume and cover letter in a Word document, you had better format it that way. If they do not state a preference, put it in a PDF because it guarantees that the formatting stays the way you intended it.
  • Once it is in, it is in and now you have to wait. A lot of advice will tell you to call to follow up. DO NOT do this, you will just irritate the HR person or hiring manager and they will throw your application directly into the trash (or circular file, which I literally just found out means the trash a couple of weeks ago.)
  • Your extended social network is a great way to find out about jobs. However, if you see a job posted by someone you know on the internet but who does not really know anything about you or your skill set, do not imply on your application that you know that person. It is not a good look when the hiring manager asks their coworker about you and they reply “who?” It is better to contact that person directly and let them know you are applying for the job they posted and ask if they can put in a good word for you.

Cover Letters and Resumes

  • KISS- keep it simple stupid. Your resume should not have swirly whirly graphics and four different fonts. Keep it very direct and readable.
  • Objectives are stupid, do not write them on your resume.
  • Keep your resume to one page, two max. You do not have to list every job and every club you’ve ever participated in, change your resume for each job or each type of job to directly reflect the experience that would be most useful for the position you are applying for.
  • This is picky, but try to avoid bullet points that all start with “I.” You don’t actually have to say “I,” it’s better to write: Answered fan mail, organized the Director’s schedule, updated the calendar.
  • Write a tailored cover letter for each job. You cover letter should express exactly why you are interested in THAT job at THAT organization. It should not be your resume in narrative form. Do not write that you are the perfect candidate for the position. You are most certainly not, and the perfect candidate would never say that.
  • Please read the Ask A Manager blog. She goes into incredibly more detail about the whole job searching process than I have space for here and is a phenomenal resource. I was job searching for 10 months about 2 years ago and following her advice I applied to 100 jobs, received 10 interviews, and landed an incredibly awesome job in a very competitive field.

The Interview

  • Be on time, not even early. You should wait in your car or walk around the block a couple of times. I used to assume all businesses have a lobby with chairs that you can wait in, but I have been finding out (especially in NYC) that it is not guaranteed that they will, so it really is better to just be there, ready to go, at your appointment time.
  • Do your research. Know what the company does and anything else important about it. It is not impressive to ask a question about something where the answer is prominently featured on their website. Say, for example, interviewing at a museum, you should know what kind of collection they have, what exhibitions are upcoming, and form some kind of opinion in which you are very excited to work for that institution because of those particular things.
  • Practice answering common interview questions, which you can find online. The idea is not to memorize answers, but have some examples and anecdotes ready to go.

The Follow Up

  • Always send some kind of follow up email. This is not a thank you note, per se, but you should thank the interviewer for their time and reiterate in a few words how the interview has given you even more of a sense about the job and confirmed your desire to work there in that position. You can read more about that in our previous post here.
  • Again, do not hassle HR or the hiring manager. They aren’t going to forget that you are a candidate for the position, and different companies have different timelines for hiring. If they’ve told you they will be letting you know in two weeks and it’s been three, you can send a follow up email asking if they’ve come to a decision. But honestly, if they really like you and want to give you the job, they will let you know.



The Manners of Downton Abbey: A Review

If you didn’t watch the Downton Abbey Season Five US premier live on PBS, you might not have caught this little gem of a documentary that directly followed it. The Manners of Downton Abbey follows Alastair Bruce, the historical advisor for the series, as he helps the cast navigate every little detail of proper Downton etiquette.

Bruce explains how all the details of manners, dress, etc tells everyone everything they needed to know about who you were and were basically as natural as breathing to the people who lived them. He also notes how difficult it is to get the cast to follow the rules in a natural way, because it goes against all the ways modern people act.

The special is divided into five sections:

How to Eat

The dining room is practically the showcase for etiquette and thus is a perfect place to start.

What’s really great, is how clearly Bruce pays attention to details that are barely even visible in the show. For instance, it was proper etiquette for women to place their gloves on their laps, under their napkin,while they ate. On the show, the actresses are required to do this even though the viewers would never know that they were there.

Bruce even explains the reasoning behind etiquette- for example, no one was ever supposed to let their back touch the back of the chair. Then why should chairs have backs? So the footmen have something to hold! He even mentions that Nannies used to put knives down the back of the chair to train children not to touch them.

He explains that the manners are especially important at dinner because, having said grace, the table becomes the Lord’s table and it is respectful to be on your best manners with all the best dishes and silver and everything because of that.

It turns out that the art department sets the table the same way a butler in Edwardian times would have- using a ruler! Unlike a butler, they use their fingers to touch the silver- for a real dinner, the staff would wear gloves so as to not leave any finger prints.

They don’t leave out the servants- they are taught the footman choreography for serving and the proper way to serve, stand, and look. Amusingly, they point out that, unlike real servants, the actors have to do all the complicated serving while stepping over electrical cords and filming equipment.

How to Marry

This section is less about etiquette and more about the social structure. They emphasise the importance of marriage for women, in that they have no position of their own, only position given to them by their husband’s position.

There is a fun bit about the debutante’s presentation at court which has extremely exact etiquette rules about how long your train could and how many feathers you had to wear in your hair. The presentation to the King and Queen showed that she was available as a suitable wife, so of course, it was incredibly important.

They discuss Burke’s Peerage, the very thick book that lists all the important aristocrats in Britain- this was important for matchmaking to ensure that all suitors were…suitable.

For the servants- generally they didn’t. It was not allowed between servants and they didn’t have much free time in which to meet new people. For a woman, if one did manage to get married, she would be expected to immediately leave her job. Being married also split a servant’s loyalty and servants really worked best if their only loyalty was to their service.

How to Behave

Formality was the building block of the aristocracy during this time, and they feared that if they showed any weakness or lessening of etiquette, the whole system would crumble around them.

However, they point out that the aristocracy is actually fairly rude to those around them- for practical reasons. If you have a servant handing you something thousands of times a day and you had to thank them each time, it would get ridiculous.

The servants themselves prided themselves on being invisible and perfectly discreet. They wanted the family they worked for to be absolutely above reproach because a servant’s status came from the status of who they worked for.

How to Dress

Clothes didn’t escape the Edwardian’s attention to every detail. Clothing was the most obvious example of who you were. Aristocrat’s clothing was incredibly expensive and detailed to show their status. But then within that there are even more rules- only married women are allowed to wear tiaras, for example.

They have an outfit for every activity and setting, you could only do that if you had plenty of leisure time to be constantly changing clothes. They do point out that as the show moves through time and clothing loosens so do the women gain more freedoms (not to mention literally being more free to breathe as corsets became less tight.) Men did not escape the stiffness of their clothes- most modern people can imagine what it might be like to wear a corset, but they don’t realize that men’s formal wear was very stiff and difficult to move in as well.

Hats and gloves all had their own rules as well, of course.

How to Make Money

This isn’t in the show, but the definition of a gentleman (as a job title) was someone who didn’t have to work for a living, they made money from their holdings and investments. This is, of course, one of the key plot points in Downton Abbey, how to maintain this lifestyle in a rapidly changing world.

They also discuss “noblesse oblige” (not in those words) but the idea that the lord of the manor provided jobs for everyone who lived there and it was important to keep up the whole staff of servants because if you decided, hey, I don’t need a valet anymore, that meant that that man was now out of a job.


I thought this was a really great program that does really give a strong and accurate insight into how hard they work to pay attention to those details to bring the audience an authentic experience. I was actually really impressed that they have a person doing this for them full time, but I guess it makes sense since there are so many things to keep track of. Alastair Bruce is an incredibly charming host and there was plenty of behind the scenes action, cast interviews, and hilarious clips from the show (prominently featuring Maggie Smith’s commentary on all things etiquette.) I highly highly recommend it for fans of Downton Abbey and all etiquette buffs.

If you didn’t catch it, you can watch the full thing on the PBS website here.

Twitter RTs Are Not A Matter Of Etiquette

I can’t believe I’m actually writing this.

Last Wednesday, Vulture published an essay asking “Does Retweeting Praise Make You A Monster?” It outlines certain rules that have gone unspoken on the social media platform Twitter, but that everyone seems to get very opinionated about, from “don’t steal jokes” to “if someone follows you, you must follow them back.” But one idea that a number of people seem to think is a massive “breach of etiquette” is retweeting praise about yourself.

Author Adam Sternbergh thankfully concludes that it’s a bit of a silly idea, but not before spending a couple thousand words asking various writers and Twitter personalities about the subject. The statement that caught me was by novelist Gabriel Roth, who said:

“I think of Twitter as a cocktail party, and a certain amount of subtle bragging and self-advancement is acceptable at a cocktail party but if you show up and just stand there holding a big poster advertising your book, who’s going to invite you back? Imagine meeting someone at a party who opened a conversation with, ‘This fellow Larry Smidgen from Minneapolis says my book is laugh-out-loud funny — but also surprisingly moving!’”

What struck me is that I’ve heard this comparison of Twitter to a cocktail party before. People have expressed joy at it being a place to mingle, to make jokes, to meet new people and talk about new ideas–that sounds like a great cocktail party to me. But I don’t quite think all the rules of a cocktail party work. After all, in a cocktail party it’s harder to enter or exit a conversation. There’s body language to pay attention to. There are things, for better or worse, that you would say on the Internet, at arms-length from any immediate reaction, that you may not say to someone’s face. It may feel like a party sometimes, but it’s also an entirely different way of having a conversation.

For instance, you can’t retweet anything in a face to face conversation.

Despite having social media platforms like this for well over a decade, many people still operate under the impression that people are always their true selves online. That you are speaking to a person, and not that person’s crafted, representative self. How distant that crafted self is from their true self is different depending on the topic and on the person, but the performative aspect requires at least a second of thought and craft to whatever message one writes, whether it’s about your baby’s first tooth or your new book. People also forget that this is fluid. Twitter may be your personal confession booth one day, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be your publicity platform the next.

Editor Kurt Andersen said in the piece that “it’s a matter of not overdoing it.” I admit having been annoyed when my feed is filled with 50 retweets from the same person, whatever the subject, just as I would be if someone dominated the conversation at a cocktail party. The difference is that online, I can close the tab.

What Do I Do With This Non-Invitation?

Is it okay to do this before it happens?

Is it okay to do this before it happens? [Via]

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

I have a friend who is getting married. I don’t see her very often, so I found out about the relationship and the engagement via Facebook (which is fine, that is what Facebook is for). Via social media I also know that her wedding will be small and intimate, and that they can’t afford to invite everyone they would like, which I totally understand, and I did not expect to be invited, as we  don’t see each other very often. Today I got what I guess is an announcement card.  It’s not a save-the-date, it basically says “we’re getting married on X date but you’re not invited, we’ll send pictures”.  I was resigned to not being invited, but when I saw the envelope for a minute I thought maybe I had made the cut, so seeing that I hadn’t was a wee bit of a let-down.  But I have also never encountered a formal “you’re not invited to our wedding, but here’s when it is” card before, and I wondered what you guys thought of them and what the etiquette is as the recipient of one.

Not Invited


According to the Emily Post Institute: “Printed or handwritten announcements are sent to those left off of the guest list, or to acquaintances or business associates who might wish to hear the news. Announcements carry no obligation to return a gift, and they are never sent to anyone who has received an invitation. Ideally, they should be mailed the day after the wedding but may be sent up to several months later.” The bolding is theirs, so you know they mean business.


Jaya: So this is wrong, yes? So very wrong.

Victoria: Traditionally you CAN send an announcement after the wedding, to anyone who was interested but perhaps not invited, for whatever reason. But it’s really fallen out of favor. And you definitely don’t send it before, because thats like na-na we are having a wedding and you aren’t invited. I guess after it seems better because it’s already done, but it still seems like a weird concept to do a formal, printed announcement. Everyone now will know from Facebook pictures anyway.

Jaya: Yeah, it definitely seems like a tradition that used to be very practical but isn’t really necessary because of modern changes. Before, it’d be really good to let people know about new addresses or name changes, but the point was the information, not the way the information came. I wonder if they somehow think this is akin to an announcement in the paper, but just for people they know.

Victoria: I also wonder how common the wedding announcements really were to begin with, honestly. Just because there are official etiquette rules doesn’t mean people did it.

Jaya: That’s true! It may have worked backwards–a rule is written just in case you do it, and then everyone reads an etiquette book and thinks “Oh shit, I have to do this.”

Victoria: Also, people get really confused about announcements, even if they’re sent after! A lot of people think it means you have to send a gift, which you most certainly do not. I mean, you can if you want, but they should NEVER have registry information on them.

Jaya: I wonder if their sending this out has to do with guilt over having a small wedding. Like, this idea that you must explain yourself if you’re not inviting every person you’ve ever met. And I hope we can get over that idea.

Victoria: That’s a good point. Besides, if you really do feel guilty about say, not inviting the close group of friends you hang out with- it would be better to explain the situation on the phone or in person or something anyway.

Jaya: And yeah, the writer explains she had no presumptions of being invited anyway. Most people have a handle on who they’re really close to and who they’re not, and don’t get all butthurt about it.

Victoria: I would probably get this and be like “Well, I wasn’t expecting to go to your stinky wedding anyway :-P”

Thank Goodness Prohibition Happened And Gave Us These Modern Drinking Habits

As much as the idea of prohibition seems ridiculous to me now, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the fact that it was enforced in America from 1919-1933. In the 1820s, Americans drank about four gallons of 200 proof alcohol per capita.That is far too much alcohol, you guys! Yes, banning it and sending unregulated production underground was not a good idea, but it basically halved our alcohol consumption once it was legal again. Plus it paved the way for all sorts of innovation in cocktails since the bootleg liquor was so gross. It wasn’t for nothing.

In Perfect Behavior (a parody etiquette guide published 1922) by Donald Ogden Stewart, the chapter “The Etiquette of Dinners and Balls” suggests some opening lines to get conversation going. For instance, when cocktails are served, you may remark on how terrible the gin is, and then offer the tidbit “Senator Volstead [of the Volstead Act, aka The National Prohibition Act] was born Sept. 4 1869.” Stewart also jokes about alcohol consumption in “Etiquette for Dry Agents”:

In spite of the great pride and joy which we Americans feel over the success of National Prohibition; in spite of the universal popularity of the act and the method of its enforcement; in spite of the fact that it is now almost impossible to obtain in any of our ex saloons anything in the least resembling whiskey or gin,– there still remains the distressing suspicion that quite possibly, at some of the dinner parties and dances of our more socially prominent people, liquor–or its equivalent–is openly being served. . . .The main difficulty has been, I believe, that the average dry agent is too little versed in customs and manners of polite society. It is lamentably true that too often has a carefully planned society dry raid been spoiled because the host noticed that one of his guests was wearing white socks with a black tie, or that the intruder was using his dessert spoon on the hors d’oeuvres.

That’s just some beautiful backhanded insulting right there. He goes on to suggest that we need to attract a higher class of dry agent, which may be difficult, given that most preparatory schools teach young men to frown upon “pussyfooting and sneaking.”

Some etiquette books of the time suggested hosts obey the law and serve nonalcoholic drinks at parties, but according to Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature, 1920-1933, most people treated hosts who didn’t serve alcohol as “uncouth, emasculating, or even cowardly.” Perfect Behavior suggests that alcohol consumption was a bit of an open secret. When I worked at the New-York Historical Society we presented an exhibition on beer and brewing in New York. During prohibition, many breweries were forced to close or make non-alcoholic malt tonics. One brewing company found a way to help get alcohol into the hands of consumers with a sneaky advisory on the label: “Caution: Do not ferment, do not add yeast, or you will create beer.”

If our depictions of the Roaring 20s are to be believed, Prohibition just made alcohol cool, along with creating a culture of concealment and necessity. If there was alcohol around, you better drink as much as you can, because you don’t know when you’ll be drinking again. According to No Nice Girl Swears by Alice-Leone Moats (published in 1933), this actually meant that learning how to deal with drunk people became part of common culture. “When our mothers came out, learning to handle a drunk was not an essential part of a debutante’s education,” she wrote. “Now every girl has to be capable not only of shifting for herself, but, more often than not, of looking out for her escort as well.” This was doubly true because most speakeasies were co-ed, whereas before prohibition bars and saloons had been strictly for men. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “Enforcement of the Volstead Act diminished the prominence of all-male saloons and unintentionally encouraged the development of more expensive speakeasies patronized by men and women. After repeal, heterosocial drinking patterns persisted.”

Prohibition may have also created one of my favorite types of get togethers–the cocktail party. Now merely having alcohol was cause for celebration, and guests may be so excited by it that a sit-down dinner is not required. “Cocktail parties have become the line of least resistance in entertaining. They are convenient for the person who must get 50 or 60 people off the list of obligations and prefers to do it at one fell swoop, saving money at the same time. It certainly isn’t much trouble; all you need is a case of synthetic gin and a tin of anchovy paste. The greater the number of the guests, the smaller and more airless the room, the stronger the gin, the more successful the party. But if you give one, you must be prepared to have your friends on your hands until two in the morning, as they will invariably forget their dinner engagements and stay on until the last shakerful is emptied.”

Nowadays if you drink alcohol, things like cocktail parties, women in bars, and heterosocial drinking are all taken for granted. So is the idea that, even if you get completely shitfaced, you should probably be a little discreet about it. And for that we have Prohibition to thank! Just please, never again.