The Surprising Thing about Manners: A Lesson from Emily Post


The Surprising Thing about Manners A Lesson from Emily Post Main

Come back in time with me today… back to visit a good friend of ours, Emily Post.

You’ve heard of her, right? She was the country’s leading expert in social conduct in the early 1900’s. Her words quickly became the standard for those aspiring to her life in the elite society. And get this: she actually met her husband at a ball in a mansion on 5th Avenue. Living the dream! Right?!

Her original advice makes me think of an era where Mary Poppins visited the Banks home, complete with house maids and cooks. When engraved cards were a thing and the afternoon tea was flowing. Sounds lovely.

Yes, manners have always been an important part of civilized society. But — this may come as a surprise — they can change with the times. While some aspects of manners never get old (like teaching children respect), other things that were once considered mannerly have become antiquated.

And it’s not just limited to Emily Post, of course! Remember the “Be Kind, Please Rewind” slogan of Blockbuster in the 1990’s? Returning your VHS rental to the store not rewound was basically like spitting in the face of the next renter. Not cool, man. But these days you say, “Be Kind, Please Rewind” to a youngster and he looks at you like you’re nuts. (Ahem. Not that that’s ever happened to me…)

So let’s take a look at some of the jewels from the original writings of Emily Post and see how far we’ve come… (All quotes are from Etiquette, by Emily Post, 1922 and found at

10 ACTUAL Pieces of Manners Advice from Emily Post, circa 1920

1. How (not) to Eat a Bird

“Birds are not eaten with the fingers in company! You cut off as much of the meat as you can, and leave the rest on your plate.”

I predict that Emily Post never ate at a KFC. Just a guess.

2. An Awkward Introduction

“When a gentleman is introduced to a lady he says, ‘May I have some of this?’ or ‘Would you care to dance?'”Awkward introduction and other surprisingly funny manners and etiquette from Emily Post

To which a lady always responds, “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly.” Ha. (But seriously, “May I have some of this”? What!? That just sounds so… smarmy. It’s hard to believe (but true) that Emily Post once considered it quite proper!)

3. A Modern Presentation to Society

“ANY one of various entertainments may be given to present a young girl to society. The favorite and most elaborate of these, but possible only to parents of considerable wealth and wide social acquaintance, is a ball. Much less elaborate, but equal in size, and second in favor to-day, is an afternoon tea with dancing. Third, and gaining in popularity, is a small dance, which presents the débutante to the younger set and a few of her mother’s intimate friends. Fourth, is a small tea without music. Fifth, the mere sending out of the mother’s visiting card with the daughter’s name engraved below her own, announces to the world that the daughter is eligible for invitations.”

And the sixth, what my family did. Take my friends​ and me out for lunch at a Mexican restaurant and ​afterwards drop us off at the mall!

4. Emily Post on Southern Manners

Emily Post on Southern Women

“The reputation of Southern women for having the gift of fascination is perhaps due not to prettiness of feature more than to the brilliancy or sweetness of their ready smile. That Southern women are charming and ‘feminine’ and lovable is proverbial. How many have noticed that Southern women always bow with the grace of a flower bending in the breeze and a smile like sudden sunshine?

Bless her heart, somebody get her an iced tea, quick! We love you, too, Emily Post. Now, please go on about my brilliant smile…

5.  Emily Post on New York’s Manners

“New York’s bad manners are often condemned and often very deservedly. Even though the cause is carelessness rather than intentional indifference, the indifference is no less actual and the rudeness inexcusable.”

This just makes me giggle. Tell us how you really feel, Emily Post! I love a poised woman who can speak her mind.

6. Emily Post on Church Greetings

Emily Post on Church Greetings

People do not greet each other in church, except at a wedding… It would be shocking to enter a church and hear a babel of voices!”

Try telling that to my pastor… This is a rule we break basically every Sunday. Whoops!

7. Glove-Wearing Gentlemen

“A gentleman on the street never shakes hands with a lady without first removing his right glove. But at the opera, or at a ball, or if he is usher at a wedding, he keeps his glove on.”

You hear that, gentlemen? Aren’t you so glad you know what to do with your gloves now?

8. Say What Now?

Emily Post on What to Say

A few thoughts…

  1. Pardon me! is less proper than excuse me? Don’t tell that to the Grey Poupon guy.
  2. Who would ever say “Will you accord me permission?” That’s just pushing it, right?
  3. “Partook of liquid refreshment” is another that I’m sure I’ll have no trouble avoiding. Whew, I’m off the hook with this one!
  4. Can you believe “Phone” was once considered improper? It’s so colloquial now — a little hard to believe!

9. Modern Communication

“THE ART of general letter-writing in the present day is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a post-card…”

… an email, a Facebook message, a *gasp* text message. I’m sorry to admit that while I do love writing a good thank you note, Emily Post probably would be shocked and appalled by my generally brief, informal communication.

I’m sorry, Mrs. Post, but don’t try to come between me and my emoji-full text messages!

10. How to Behave in a Theatre or at a Show

Emily Post on Talking at a Theatre

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 artwork by The Biggest Lebowski

Nothing shows less consideration for others than to whisper and rattle programmes and giggle and even make audible remarks throughout a performance. Very young people love to go to the theater in droves called theater parties and absolutely ruin the evening for others who happen to sit in front of them.”

Oh, how this one pains me so! Have you ever had the misfortune of watching a movie in the theaters with a “talker?” I have. Totally unpleasant. (Remind me to tell you that story sometime…) And Emily Post didn’t even have to contend with proper cell phone usage. As poised as she was, just one texting teen might have just sent her over the edge!

So, yes, while some of these are a bit laugh-worthy now, I think the sentiment behind them still applies.

You’ve probably heard us talk about manners and etiquette as a way of showing kindness to others around us. It’s not about the rules, it’s about the relationships. Thinking of others before yourself.

Or as Emily Post so wisely put it years ago:

“Consideration for the rights and feelings of others is not merely a rule for behavior in public but the very foundation upon which social life is built.

And who wouldn’t want that for their kids?

The Timeless Emily Post on Manners

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About Aubrey Hunt
Before hopping on the crazy ride we call motherhood, I studied engineering and taught math and science to middle and high school students. Now, perhaps like you, I fill my days singing The Itsy Bitsy Spider and praying my preschooler will eat a vegetable — any vegetable!

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