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Manners minded

If you please, a parade of new behavior guides, led by relatives of Emily Post, shows the civil way to do it all, from dating to dialing.

August 14, 2004|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

Etiquette maven Emily Post has a lot of company on the bookshelves these days, and it's quite a colorful crowd.

There's a man who calls himself Mr. Social Grace and a socialite known as the "Doyenne of Decorum." There are the Etiquette Grrls and the Fabulous Girls, offering paperback guides on good behavior, with a dollop of sauciness. Even designer Kate Spade has joined the group, making her writing debut earlier this year with three advice volumes, one called simply "Manners."

Not so long ago, etiquette books were ridiculed as a relic of a bygone era. Now, as society grows fed up with increasing rudeness, the remakes are everywhere. Even Emily Post's progeny are part of the trend -- revisiting, re-imaging and reissuing great-grandmama's advice for a modern age.

"We live in a fast-paced, somewhat informal world, where people are just going, going, going," says Peter Post, who made the bestseller list last year with his book, "Manners for Men." "Rudeness begets stress, and stress begets rudeness."

Who hasn't been irked by a cellphone conversation at their favorite restaurant? Or had someone not hold a door for them when their arms were full? Or been glared at by a salesperson who'd rather talk on the phone than help a customer?

People wear shorts to cocktail parties and spam their friends with e-mail. They gossip about co-workers and use foul language.

And now it has reached a tipping point. "People are craving a little civility," Peter Post says.

Others say the return of etiquette is a rebellion against, well, rebellion. During the '60s, a philosophy of "do your own thing" and "live and let live" took hold, freeing people from what they viewed as stodgy structures but leaving them largely unprepared for formal interactions.

Now, as we are living in ever closer proximity to each other and as new technologies change the rules of communication, people are finding themselves caught in awkward situations grappling for the proper response.

"The rules may be changing so fast that we don't know what they are anymore," says etiquette scholar Kerry Ferris, an assistant professor of sociology at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. "Sometimes we need them spelled out for us. Rules make us feel secure."

To satisfy that demand, more than 100 titles -- most of them published within the last five years -- can be found on Amazon.com. Universe Publishing reprinted two children's books from 1936 and 1947 -- "Manners Can Be Fun" and "How to Behave and Why." Tiffany's has issued a guide on table manners for teenagers, and Town & Country magazine has put together a compilation of essays on "civility in a changing society" called "Social Graces."

The most recent "Emily Post's Etiquette" -- the 16th edition -- has outsold its predecessor 2 to 1. A new version, updated by Emily Post's great-granddaughter-in-law, Peggy Post, is due out in October.

The resurgence of the guides seems to stem as much from a desire to know what's expected in a given situation as a desire for those around us to shape up.

A survey conducted by the nonprofit think tank Public Agenda found that society is clearly concerned about etiquette issues. While preparing the 2002 report, called "Rudeness in America," the group discovered that 81% of Americans were convinced that people are less considerate than they were 20 years ago.

"There is a feeling that we are losing a little bit of what makes communities work, if we don't pay a little more attention to courtesy," says Jean Johnson, vice president of Public Agenda. "We are so rushed and so crowded that we have lost the time to be considerate and polite.

"Maybe this isn't the most important thing in the world, it's not a matter of life and death, but it really bothers people."

Melissa Estabrook, 30, says she and her fiance bought three etiquette books this year -- Peter Post's book for men, Tiffany's "Table Manners for Teenagers" and "New Manners for New Times" by Letitia Baldrige.

"I never learned formal etiquette when I was growing up," says Estabrook, who works at Pasadena's Anthropologie store -- where nearly a dozen etiquette books are for sale amid racks of vintage-inspired skirts and blouses. "I just wanted to have the basic knowledge for the time when I need to use it."

Spade, whose classic-style handbags have made her a favorite among young women, says people are searching for ways "to navigate through our hectic lives with a bit more ease."

"The way we interact and communicate is constantly evolving, and it can get tricky," Spade says. "The specific guidelines from one generation to another may evolve and change, so it helps to have a modern perspective."

Although times have changed since Emily Post first wrote her book in 1922, the Posts say the underlying principles of good manners have stayed the same.

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