Injecting decorum into the Rat Race

Sunday, August 22, 2004

There's a man who calls himself Mr. Social Grace and a socialite known as the "Doyenne of Decorum." There are the Etiquette Girls and the Fabulous Girls, offering paperback guides on good behavior, with a dollop of sauciness.

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. Emily Post's children 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 best-seller list last year with his book "Manners for Men."

"Rudeness begets stress, and stress begets rudeness."

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 past five years -- can be found on Amazon.com.

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 percent 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," 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."


MODERN SOCIAL GRACESCellular phones

According to Peggy Post, cell-phone etiquette is still evolving and, like most manners, it's situational. She suggests that people turn off their phones in restaurants and not make calls at the table. "If you must call, excuse yourself and go to the vestibule or outside." Other tips:

Speak as quietly as you can.

Turn off the ringer. Switch to the vibrating mode and check your caller ID or capture your messages via voicemail.

Keep calls as short as possible; the longer the call, the greater the irritation to those who are forced to listen.E-mail etiquette

Charlotte Ford suggests in her book, "21st Century Etiquette," that people watch their tone when sending e-mails. "Keep aware that, particularly with someone you don't interact with regularly, tone can easily be misinterpreted over e-mail," Ford writes. Other no-nos, according to Ford:

Don't continue to e-mail a person who has not replied to a previous message.

Don't gossip -- especially about the boss.

Don't pass along off-color jokes or offensive language.

Don't abuse personal e-mailing.

Don't feel obligated to open "junk" e-mail.

Don't use e-mail to discuss personal or interoffice complaints.

--Los Angeles Times

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