By Jack Sparacino
One of the first things you notice when moving to the Lowcountry, or probably the South in general, is the nice upgrade in politeness if not overall manners. Compared to New England, for example. It prompted me to revisit one of the queens of etiquette, Emily Post. Born in Baltimore, Miss Post lived from 1872 to 1960. Her 1922 book, “Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home” became a best seller, and newer versions continued to be popular for many years after. While some of her advice is pretty quaint at this point if not humorous, much of it still seems relevant. Here are some examples of her enduring values.
1. On manners. “Manners are made up of trivialities of deportment which can be easily learned if one does not happen to know them; manner is personality—the outward manifestation of one’s innate character and attitude toward life…. Etiquette must… include ethics as well as manners. Certainly what one is, is of far greater importance than what one appears to be.”
Pretty nice distinctions, I think, and her underscoring the importance of ethics, too frequently in short supply today, makes her look almost visionary. And of course manners are easy to learn, if one has people around to serve as good role models. But are they “trivialities” in any sense other than the devil is in the details, so to speak? People notice details and they can be anything but trivial. Holding the door for someone is a detail, I suppose, but it makes a statement. So are good old fashioned please’s and thank you’s, or properly introducing a friend to another friend when meeting on the street. Not to mention decent table manners or appropriate behavior during an interview! (This actually rules out eating pieces of salad with your fingers, something I’ve been known to do.)
2. On Slang. “The fact that slang is apt and forceful makes its use irresistibly tempting. Coarse or profane slang is beside the mark, but ‘flivver,’ ‘taxi,’ the movies, ‘deadly’ (meaning dull), ‘feeling fit,’ ‘feeling blue,’ ‘grafter,’ a ‘fake,’ ‘grouch,’ ‘hunch’ and ‘right o!’ are typical of words that it would make our spoken language stilted to exclude.”
Ms. Post hit a home run with this one, though I had to look up “flivver” (a small old car, jalopy or Ford Model T). Modern television seems to have completely lost its way here, as it migrates ever closer to using crude language on a regular basis. Mark Twain blew the doors off society’s resistance to colorful slang in the print media some 140 years ago, but I’ll bet even he would be shocked at today’s courseness.
3. On Litter-bugs. “People who picnic along the public highway leaving a clutter of greasy paper and swill … for other people to walk or drive past, and to make a breeding place for flies, and furnish nourishment for rats, choose a disgusting way to repay the land-owner for the liberty they took in temporarily occupying his property.”
Another home run for Emily here. It’s too bad that more people don’t respect our common, beautiful environment enough to avoid the need for anti-littering laws. There’s something a little odd about having to legislate common sense. On the other hand, my casual impression is that there is less litter here in the Lowcountry than you find in many other places.
4. On Smoking. “One very great annoyance in open air gatherings is cigar smoke when blown directly in one’s face or worse yet the smoke from a smouldering cigar. It is almost worthy of a study in air currents to discover why with plenty of space all around, a tiny column of smoke will make straight for the nostrils of the very one most nauseated by it!”
Apart from overall reductions in smoking in the U.S., we’ve certainly seen a huge groundswell of protest and regulation against smoking in public places. Indoor smoking at work was still allowed in my early corporate days, though today many companies, restaurants, hotels and so forth have put their feet down against it.
All of this makes me wonder what it was like to have had dinner with Emily Post. Did she eat anything with her fingers? Did she absolutely always use the proper fork with her salad? Sneak outside between courses to grab a smoke? Let out an occasional if whispered profanity?
Maybe yes, maybe no, but her heart was certainly in the right place. And I’ll bet she would have liked most of what she saw in the Lowcountry.
By Jack Sparacino