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NEW POST TAKES PROPER STEPS TO INHERIT ETIQUETTE EMPIRE

The bride's father is willing to walk her down the aisle, but the bride's ex-stepfather is still on good terms with her and would like to do it, too. As would the bride's current stepfather, who might be hurt if he were not included in the wedding plans. The bride wants to know what to do.

And therein lie three of the most common questions that brand-new etiquette maven Peggy Post of Connecticut will try to answer as she slips easily into the role just passed on to her by her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Post, whom she calls "Libby."Elizabeth Post is the granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post, this country's best-known etiquette adviser. At the urging of a publisher friend, who was worried that the Roaring 20s would be the ruination of good manners, Emily Post published an etiquette book for her peers in society in 1922.

"It was meant to be a guidebook for the upper classes," said Peggy Post in an interview, "but the masses bought it. A whole lot of people were evidently searching for guidelines of gracious living, because the book was a huge success. All 692 pages of it."

Peggy Post has heard all the stories about her famous great-grandmother-in-law, even though she never met the woman - who died in 1960. And ever since her marriage to Allen Post 16 years ago she has been preparing, with her mother-in-law, to take over the legacy of the Emily Post Institute.

That legacy includes writing a monthly column for Good Housekeeping magazine called "Etiquette for Today," giving telephone interviews, updating the numerous Post books on etiquette, traveling across the country to answer etiquette questions at bridal shows, and overseeing the institute's newest project, in which etiquette meets high tech: the Post multimedia product.

"Emily Post's Complete Guide to Weddings," available on CD-ROM for Windows, with an accompanying hardcover book, allows the bride to plan her wedding and record and update her guest list and gift list, with the help of her PC. Available since April, the $49.95 package by Harper-Collins got 31/2 out of four stars in a recent USA Today CD-ROM review.

Now Peggy Post is about to get her own computer and transform her porch into a home office. Although she has read the letters sent to her mother-in-law and helped with answers through the years, the job officially begins with the September column in Good Housekeeping. The "stacks and stacks" of letters were turned over to her months ago, and Post has already written all the columns for fall, on a typewriter.

"What's interesting is the number of young people writing in," said the stepmother of two twenty-something sons - she decidedly does not look like a stuffy arbiter of where the flatware must lie on the table and how the teacup should be lifted off the saucer. "Their questions cover everything you can imagine, and a lot of them are girlfriend/boyfriend related. I think that as long as a question is about dealing with other people, about interpersonal relationships, it comes under the bailiwick of etiquette."

One mother wrote about her teenage daughter, who often asked her to make excuses when boys she didn't care for called. "I told her she shouldn't have to lie for her daughter," said Post. "I believe that the truth is usually the best way to deal with things, even if it might be uncomfortable for a short time."

A girl who worked in a grocery store wrote to ask who should be first in line when a new checkout counter suddenly opens and everyone rushes to get there. "It might not seem important," said Post, "but it's not fair that the last person in the old line usually gets to the front of the new line first. I wrote back that, ideally, the person who was first in line at the other counter should be in the same position at the new one."

Post had plenty of people-related jobs before this, starting after her graduation from Louisiana State University when she became a Pan American World Airways flight attendant. From there she moved on to teach seventh-grade history and English, then worked as a management recruiter at Chemical Bank in New York. She met Allen Post, an investment counselor, through friends, and they married on Martha's Vineyard and walked with their guests from the church to the Edgartown home of Elizabeth Post for a barbecue reception.

"She was not a terribly serious person," Peggy Post said of Emily Post. "She was said to be effervescent, not overly concerned about etiquette. She wrote a lot of short stories, and the etiquette book didn't come about until she was 51 years old. She loved bright color, in her garden and in her furniture; sometimes she even painted bright color on some of her finished wood furniture, just because she liked the kick of color. I don't think she'd be thrown by any of today's etiquette questions. I think she would have moved along with the times."

Some of the questions that Emily Post never had to deal with include how to talk to a stranger of questionable intentions who initiates a conversation on the street or the subway. "You don't know whether it could be dangerous or not," Post said, "and you have to try to make quick judgments. You don't want to agitate the person, or be rude, and you have to balance your tone of voice somewhere between firm, indifferent and friendly."

If someone calls and asks you to play golf at their club, "There is no one set rule of who will pay, but you can't err in offering to pay for your share, and if your friends say no, then offer to pay the caddy or golf cart fee, and if they still insist on paying for everything, be sure to reciprocate, if not at your club, then by giving them a dinner or something in kind."

Post and her husband golf, ski and fish.

Since she has been working with her mother-in-law, Post has noted a change in the number and quality of shower gifts for brides and mothers-to-be. "Engagement showers have gotten wild, in that the shower gifts are getting more and more elaborate, as if they are wedding gifts," noted Post, "and more and more showers are being given for the same bride." Because the cost can get out of hand, she advised that no wedding guest should be invited to more than one wedding shower.

Should a person be insulted if he or she is invited to a private dinner by telephone on the day of the event? "It depends on how close your friends are. If they're working mothers, as many of my friends are, I know that they've just managed to put the dinner together that morning, and I would understand. I think people can be overly sensitive sometimes, when there is no need to be," she said. "The best rule, if you're concerned about something, is to speak up and be honest about it. This saves friendships."

Etiquette gurus are by tradition appalled at various gaffes committed by the masses. The one thing that appalls Post is "the demise of the thank-you note after a gift is received. This is quite common, unfortunately," she said. "The rule is, you should thank the giver for any gift, in writing, and as soon as possible. The outside to write after receiving a bridal gift is three months."

What does she think of her fellow etiquette experts like Judith Martin (Miss Manners) and Letitia Baldrige? "I think that competition is good, that it keeps the whole subject of etiquette in the limelight," Post said. "Etiquette is common sense. It's a code of behavior based on thoughtfulness, and people want to have some sense of order, some guidelines or rules that give them a benchmark in life."

And what about the bride with the three fathers? One thing Post is not is wishy-washy in her answers. "I say," she said, "the natural father should walk her down the aisle."