Friday, January 3, 2014


A few years ago, in the course of my scholarly research, I had occasion to read Emily Post's 1922 Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home. It was incidental to my work for my Master's thesis, which touched on the 1920s and I had just finished reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she references having read it, first as a teen and again after the death of her husband. My brain, being akin to a giant dumpster, held on to various aspects of the work, including the section about how one's servants should be attired for both day an evening events. Like a giant dumpster, however, my brain entirely lacks a catalogue, and thus when I try to recall details, I often fall short. So, a while back, while binge-watching Downton Abbey on Netflix, I remembered there was something about how a butler should dress, but I couldn't quite recall the salient details, and so I wasn't entirely sure that Carson was wearing the correct coat for the time of day in question. So I turned to my second screen, and first checked Mrs. Post's manual for the proper morning dress for a butler in a major house (allowing for national differences, Carson was indeed correctly attired), then I read the whole darn thing again. And I started thinking. 

What I started thinking about was how much I wished I had a housekeeper, cook, butler, housemaid, footman, and driver. (More about the change in the size of a household staff in future posts.) What I thought about next was that the rituals and structures of the time did to codify a certain amount of selflessness and kindness.  Furthermore, while on one hand, the formality of the age kept emotions largely hidden, it also put one's concerns for others and community in the forefront; those who mourned wore outward symbols, notes of gratitude were common, and the custom of "paying calls" was one of visiting one's neighbors and friends to socialize and check-in. I don't want to downplay the "affirming one's place in the pecking order part," but there is a certain amount of comfort in knowing exactly where one stands in the pecking order.

I am the first to admit that paying calls and going to dinner parties and balls is about as much a part of my life as trips to the moon are, but what seems obvious to me is that as our world gets ever more informal and ever more connected, what we are losing is the ability to express our concern for others in the community without, well, emoting all over them. And, as Mrs. Post said, "Persons under shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally, but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they may seemingly be, no one can be under such circumstances normal." Or as Allie Brosch, the blogger of Hyperbole and a Half, wrote about telling friends and family the true extent of her major depression, "I had so very few feelings, and everyone else had so many, and it felt like they were having all of them in front of me at once. I didn't really know what to do, so I agreed to see a doctor so that everyone would stop having all of their feelings at me." In our contemporary age, we tend to have our feelings all over at everyone else. Which is better than dying of stomach ailments because of our repression, sure, but can at times make things worse for the people at the center of events; consider the town of Newtown, CT, who had to ask people to stop sending flipping teddy bears  and other stuff in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. As people, we were trying to be kind, trying to think what we might want in such a moment of stress and strain, but failed to consider that everyone else might have that exact same thought and the town might quickly become overrun with bears and other junk. Or when there is a hurricane and we all send our used clothing, when the Red Cross is all but shouting on TV "for the love of all that is holy, these people just survived a hurricane... the last damn thing they need is that crappy t-shirt you got in Daytona in 1992." 

So I had a thought that a fun and/or interesting challenge might be trying to live by the etiquette of a more formal age. Obviously I can't hire a lady's maid (my husband said "no"even when I offered to hire him a valet), and it seems impractical to dress formally for dinner every night, but I can aim to follow the spirit behind these recommendations. Mrs. Post wrote: 
Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted birth; but it is an association of gentle-folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members.
I think perhaps, etiquette provides us with a means of recognizing each other's inherent worth and dignity, while at the same time not forcing people who are struggling to bear the brunt of our emotions. Furthermore, I'm someone who has always been somewhat awkward in social situations, and the strictures of etiquette might provide me with the capacity to not be stuck with the final conversational volley of "wow, you're tall" at a cocktail party. 

So I'm going to spend 2014 attempting to live up to the general principles of etiquette as initially outlaid by Mrs. Post in her 1922 tract. Understand that I say this as someone who occasionally (or more than occasionally) completes and entire work day in running clothes and then dresses down for dinner and still has outstanding thank you notes from my wedding eleven and a half years ago. I'll outline in my next post exactly what that will entail, but it will almost certainly involve some new adventures, some hilarious mistakes, and at least one formal tea. It will almost certainly not, to my chagrin, involve a butler. (Stupid budget.)