Growing up with Emily Post
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 10 January 2009)

Mourners attending a funeral should express just the right amount of grief, not too little and definitely not too much. Too little indicates a cold heart, too much suggests showiness. Mark Twain helpfully explained that our sorrow on such occasions should be carefully calibrated: "Where a blood relation sobs, an intimate friend should choke up, a distant acquaintance should sigh, a stranger should merely fumble sympathetically with his handkerchief."

I thought of Mark Twain while reading about Emily Post and her career as a guide to proper conduct. He was of course poking fun at both advice books and at the need to do what seems proper -- and to be clearly seen doing it. This urge occasionally traps the overly anxious into gaucherie. It may lead to clumsy attempts at politeness if, for instance, someone picks up the crazy notion that the word "I" is inherently more delicate than "me." Neil Simon, speaking at a Toronto event in his honour some years ago, thanked his hosts for their generosity "to my wife and I." One listener remarked that the English language had made Simon the world's richest author but he still hadn't sorted out "I" and "me." That mistake always made Emily wince.

The impulse that drove his sentence off the rails is the same impulse that makes human relations possible. Nobody has ever discovered a civilization lacking in ritual, public or private; Simon was just doing his best to shape his speech according to what he considered correct.

Something like Emily Post's Etiquette, whether written or spread by word of mouth, has been considered a necessity of civilized life in all times and all societies. However much we have changed recently, correct decorum remains essential among dukes, hockey moms, concert-goers and gang-bangers -- perhaps especially gang-bangers, if we can judge by anecdotal evidence about what happens when a gang-banger accidentally gets dissed. Even e-mailers soon learn Netiquette, and avoid writing sentences in capital letters lest they be accused of on-line shouting.

Confucianism, the governing moral system of China for many centuries, taught principles of etiquette and ritual. People of quality were advised to choose admirable men and women as suitable models for conduct; the rest they learned from Confucius.

In 1528, Baldassare Castiglione, after serving the dukes of both Milan and Urbino, summarized all he had learned about proper conduct in his book, The Courtier. Like Emily, he hit the market dead on. The Middle Ages judged a knight by his ability in battle, but the Renaissance needed a new standard. Castiglione provided it by explaining that a true gentleman had to be articulate and learned in the classics. The Courtier went into 108 editions in five European languages, appealing especially to English nobility.

When I was growing up in the east end of Toronto, I had no need of Emily Post. I had sisters, two of them, each in her own way an expert in etiquette. They had moved through high school a few years ahead of me and considered many boys they met to be unmannerly louts. They determined that I should be different and assumed the burden of civilizing me. If it didn't take, that was not for want of trying.

A boy should know how to dance, they told me; in my case, this was one of their clear failures. They were more effective in instructing me that you could identify a well-brought-up boy by how he positioned himself in relation to a girl on the street. The boy automatically walked on the outside, closer to the traffic. I learned this rule so well that 40 years later I was still automatically following it, sometimes to the puzzlement of female companions from a later generation.

My sisters instructed me on speaking to girls, a subject I found harder than algebra. It should be done attentively and with sensitivity, they said. Care should be taken to avoid accidentally giving affront. Rough boyish language was incorrect when used with girls. In a conversation group, a boy should make sure that girls are included rather than ignored. A girl's conversation should be taken as seriously as a boy's.

I have a woman friend who sometimes complains about men so afflicted by the Male Explanatory Syndrome that while describing their own experiences they are unable to imagine that women have anything to contribute. Hearing about such men, I know only one thing for sure: Poor fellows, they suffer from a lack of sisters.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image