Finding the Sweat Spot
Even before coronavirus, I was the only one at the gym, it seems, who wiped down equipment. Am I overdoing it? —Nettled in North Carolina
You’re one of the good ones. At most gyms, employees clean the equipment multiple times throughout the day. Even so, it’s a common courtesy to sanitize surfaces after you use them to prevent the growth of potentially harmful germs. It’s also a good idea to wipe down equipment before you use it. Be the change you wish to see in the weight room.
I love the outdoors, but I’m not a seasoned backpacker. On my last foray into the woods, I noticed a fair amount of litter, and lots of people talking into their phones. What’s the etiquette here? —Irritated in Indiana
Dropping garbage in the woods is a violation of the first rule of the outdoors: “Leave no trace.” That means pack out everything you brought in; don’t mar the landscape with fires outside of designated fire pits; and stay on the trail at all times. Cellphone use in the great outdoors is a somewhat novel annoyance. By all means, carry a phone as a safety precaution, but no one wants to hear you livestreaming to your followers or jabbering loudly about your fantasy football league in the middle of a pristine forest.
The Manners Guy is a former bartender who knows his way around awkward social situations. Send your questions to [email protected].
This article is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
(Lincoln Beddoe / Shutterstock)
It’s unlikely that when future generations look back on this era, the word “charm” will pop into their heads.
In a time of trolling, bullying, flame wars, hate speech, and armed protests, such a concept seems quaint and useless. But charm is still with us, and organizations from The Etiquette School of New York to MIT are now offering instruction in attaining it.
At its least, charm is the ability to put people at their ease. In larger amounts, it delights people and arouses their admiration.
It is the culmination of good manners, but it is never an obvious display of etiquette. Said actress Sarah Bernhardt charm is “made of everything and nothing.” Charm usually catches people unaware; they find themselves captivated by and agreeing with the charmer. As Albert Camus described it, charm is “a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.”
Today’s charm instructors show the proper conversation, table manners, posture, and wardrobe to make the best impression. And there’s a growing market for it. Until the pandemic, Myka Meier had been teaching social, business, and dining etiquette at New York’s Plaza Hotel. She was mentored by a former member of the Royal Household in Britain and received further training at Switzerland’s last remaining finishing school. Earlier this year, she was addressing sold-out classes and her book, Modern Etiquette Made Easy, sold out on its first day.
Meier maintains that etiquette is not an antiquated concept. In her book, she writes, “With examples such as new forms of electronic communication, gender equality, and international travel, we have had to rewrite the rules of etiquette in many instances….Society is evolving and changing so rapidly, we must change with it.”
Charm instructors have even entered the workplace, though they call what they teach “soft skills.” According to a survey by Inc., 44 percent of top U.S. executives say these skills are their chief consideration in considering job applicants.
The demand for instruction in etiquette and charm in this country may be partly due to their scarcity. Historically, most Americans have been ambivalent about the importance of behaving themselves. In the republic’s early days, a small number of affluent Americans enjoyed refined living in America’s larger cities. But they often viewed the common people with scorn.
John Adams, attending a continental congress in New York complained that he hadn’t met a single well-bred man in the city. Young George Washington, surveying the unsettled lands of Virginia, described the frontiersmen as “a parcel of barbarians.”
There was little time and less opportunity on the frontier to acquire social polish. Europeans who toured America in the 1800s, says social historian Gerald Carson, were highly critical of “the slovenly dress and poor posture of Americans, their wolfish eating habits, the incessant chewing and spitting, the heavy drinking and generally unbuttoned behavior in steamboat, hotel, and stagecoach.” Many Americans, he adds in his book The Polite Americans, believed that rough manners were a virtue, not a fault.
But by the 1840s, many parts of the country had become settled. Americans who formerly struggled to find food and protect their families could now aspire to prosperity and gentility. Women, in particular, saw a mastery of etiquette as a means of being accepted by people of taste, education, and wealth.
Manners were a source of great interest for Americans, as reflected in the number of books that instructed “genteel” young ladies in the best customs. Titles like The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness by Florence Hartley, and Robert De Valcourt’s Illustrated Book of Manners shaped the behavior of Americans at home and among others.
In the years following the Civil War, the Post ran a regular column of answers to readers’ etiquette questions. From the August 29, 1874, issue, we learn:
- The third finger of the right hand is the proper one for the engagement ring, but by some it is worn upon the forefinger of the left hand
- At the dinner table gentlemen will sit next to the lady whom they have escorted thither, taking care to place themselves on her right hand
- It is not necessary in every case that the lady should rise on being introduced to a gentleman, but it certainly would not look well when she herself is introducing two persons for her to remain seated
In coming decades, several women — Caroline Astor, Emily Post, and Amy Vanderbilt — became the authorities on etiquette. But probably none of them popularized grace, manners, and charm better than Jacqueline Kennedy. Presidential advisor Clark Clifford wrote to her, “Once in a great while, an individual will capture the imagination of people all over the world. You have done this; and… through your graciousness and tact, you have transformed this rare accomplishment into an incredibly important asset to this nation.”
When she and President John Kennedy entered the White House in 1960, their image of cultured gentility became fashionable in the capital. In an August 6, 1960, article in the Post titled “They Tried to Teach Me Charm,” Gwen Gibson reported, “the quest for charm extends through all levels of government.”
In it she described her experiences in several of the new D.C. schools that sprang up to supply the needed instruction.
The director of the Patricia Stevens school told her charm was “an inner beauty that makes a person attractive,” although much of the class focused on her exterior. Gibson also wrote about the John Robert Powers School on Connecticut Avenue where “Mrs. Kennedy was polished to a high gloss in her premarital days.”
The pursuit of charm had long been the concern of women wishing to exude a certain savoir faire. But now, with culture and refinement so widely aspired to, charm could also be a reflection of their husbands or bosses. “The secretary who delights the eye, enchants the ear and lulls the nerves has become an important status symbol for her employer,” wrote Gibson.
They also studied charm, she said, to get a husband in a city where women outnumbered men 2 to 1.
Patricia Stevens’ students were taught “diplomatic phrases” to get men to talk. “One such line, guaranteed to perk up a frustrated civil servant, is ‘My, that’s an interesting point of view! I never thought of it that way!’” She also had warnings for smart women:
Not long ago the Stevens school analyzed a horsy female scientist, a Ph.D. who had been scaring men away with her overpowering intelligence. At Stevens she learned how to talk demurely, make herself up seductively, and wear something more feminine than tweeds….
High priestess of charm and culture in Washington is Mrs. Helene Williams, whose thirteen-year-old charm school is the oldest and most genteel in the capital. [She declares] no woman is dressed without hat, gloves, girdle and a smile.
Americans’ ideas of good manners have changed greatly since the Kennedy years. The baby boom generation seemed to bring an era informality in behavior and dress, and a generally broad acceptance of others’ lifestyles. But in an atmosphere of what would otherwise be a laudable tolerance, bad manners — rudeness even — has flourished. As author and coach Steven Handel has written, “Never before in our history has it been easier to treat people like crap then get away with it.”
Recently Parent.com made the case for reviving charm schools for the next generation, arguing that manners make the cold, hard truth bearable, writing, “Manners are meant to free us to be honest and direct while still signaling respect and consideration for another person’s feelings.”
Charm could be more valuable than simply knowing which fork to use for your fish course. It could help us to reduce the heated friction in our society. As Myka Meier says, behind all the details and customs of charm is a simple intent: to show respect, consideration, and kindness.
Featured image: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
Americans have always had trouble with their manners.
The problem isn’t that we’re less cultured than other countries (though many Europeans will gladly tell us how crude, loud, and insensitive we are.) No, our trouble is that we’re really not sure question: “What are good manners for?”
American manners resemble those of other western nations, but always with a more casual manner. We don’t bow to nobility, we don’t respect privilege, and we think ourselves the equals of anyone, which can seem barbaric to people from more tradition-bound nations.
Norman Vincent Peale identified three elements of good American manners in his 1975 Post article, “Courtesy: Key To A Happier World”:
“A strong sense of justice… courtesy often it nothing more than a highly developed sense of fair play…
“Another ingredient… is empathy, a quality that enables a person to see into the mind or heart of someone else, to understand the pain or unhappiness there and to do something to minimize it…
“Yet another component of politeness is the capacity to treat all people alike, regardless of status or importance.”
They’re all good principles, but they still require interpretation for each occasion. A further complication is our country’s highly fluid society, which is continually re-defining what is acceptable. Consider all the changes that emerged in the past generation. Within a few years, telling ethnic and sexist jokes fell from acceptable to taboo. The courtesies of offering and lighting cigarettes for others were suddenly unwelcome. Even the act of men opening doors for women could be misinterpreted.
In addition, society changes with every major technology. American developed new codes of behavior for railway travel, using a telephone, and driving automobiles. Today there is a new set of manners emerging for using cell phones, e-mail, or Facebook.
The constant change has produced a rewarding market for publishers of etiquette books. One of the most famous was “Emily Post’s Etiquette,” first published in 1922. The full title of the first edition was “Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home.” It was an ambitious topic for any author, particularly the area of etiquette in politics, which I didn’t even know existed.
The book quickly made Emily Post the country’s leading authority on good manners. But 16 years later, Margaret Case Harriman noted how out-of-date the advice sounded:
“The bachelor girl can, on occasion, go out alone with any unmarried man she knows well, if the theater she goes to, or the restaurant she dines at, be of conventional character,” Mrs. Post’s book stated tranquilly in 1936. “The strict rules of etiquette demand that the divorced meet as total and unspeaking strangers” it set forth in another chapter, and “A lady having her portrait painted always takes a woman friend, or her maid, who sits in the studio, or at least within sight or hearing.”
All over the country, bachelor girls were going out alone with unmarried men they knew only slightly, in the hope, perhaps, of getting to know them better; divorced people were greeting each other, when they met accidentally, with just as much kindliness as though they had never been married; and whatever ladies were having their portraits painted had very few women friends, or maids either, who were content to spend a whole afternoon just sitting within sight or hearing. But Mrs. Post pretty thoroughly ignored the modern trend.
The 1936 edition of Etiquette also contained an entire chapter devoted to the Chaperon, and, although she was, in fact, referred to as “the Vanishing Chaperon,” the reader could hear in those simple words an echo of the authors own wistfulness over the whole hellish situation.
In her Post article, “Dear Mrs. Post” [May 15, 1937], Ms. Harriman quickly dispelled the assumption that Emily Post was a fussy old maid, or a prim matriarch intent on ridding the world of bad posture, poor grammar, and vulgar table manners. In fact, Ms. Post had never sought to become the arbiter of propriety.
When the publishing firm of Funk & Wagnalls suggested that she write the book, she was skeptical; she disliked the word “etiquette” as being both fancy and phony, and she felt uncomfortable about setting herself up in print as an authority on correct social behavior, which was something she had always taken more or less idly for granted. [Editor] Richard Duffy pointed out that, although there were plenty of etiquette books on the market, none had been written by a woman of recognized social position… He followed up his argument by sending Mrs. Post all the current books about etiquette he could lay his hands on, and a few days later she telephoned him.
“These people,” she said, referring to the etiquette writers, “don’t seem to know what they’re talking about.”
“Well, you tell ‘em,” said Mr. Duffy simply.
Goaded, Mrs. Post sat down on a high stool at the architect’s drafting table she likes to write on and, in the next ten months, turned out 250,000 words on etiquette.
Emily Price had learned the rules of polite society by growing up in affluence and becoming a New York debutante.
She will tell you, with an air of mild astonishment, that nothing ever happened to her until she was nearly fifty, but that is not quite true. Things started happening to her more than thirty years ago, when she became a double-barreled pioneer in New York society by divorcing her husband in New York State—a pretty bold move at the time—and by going to work for a living. Nothing in her life up to that time had promised such unconventional goings-on and for a little while even her intimate friends were shaken to the core.
She was the first divorcee to combine her maiden name with that of her ex-husband; and it was as Mrs. Price Post that she went tot work, after the divorce was granted, to earn enough money to buy clothes for [sons] Ned and Bruce, and to educate them.
Emily Price Post was surprised as much by the success of her “Etiquette” as by the vast amount of misinformation on the subject reflected in readers’ letters.
When letters kept coming in, asking whether it was true that bread must be broken into pieces exactly one inch in diameter before it was eaten, and whether, when passing your plate for a second helping, you must hold your knife and fork in your hand, Mrs. Post began to realize that here, in this vast unsuspected throng of seekers after polite behavior, was her real public.
Almost all the letters from her readers are addressed to “Mrs. Emily Post,” which is incorrect. Her name on the flyleaf of Etiquette is followed by “Mrs. Price Post” in parentheses, but she realizes that to those readers of her column who haven’t bought the book, she is known by no other name than Emily Post. It still gives her a slight turn, however, to see “Mrs. Emily Post” on an envelope. She is not fussy about small matters of behavior, beyond the occasional mild recoil in the face of bad manners that is instinctive to any woman of taste, and she likes to think, and to impress upon her readers, that “etiquette” is a question of common sense and consideration rather than a study of how to speak to a visiting prince or eat an ear of corn on the cob. “No rule of etiquette is of less importance,” she has written patiently, time and time again, “than which fork we use.” And once, when she got fifteen letters in one day asking which fork the writers should use when confronted with several, she answered all fifteen grimly in four word: “Oh, use any one.”
When some of her conservative friends murmured that writing was a pleasant hobby for a woman of gentle birth, but that taking money for it seemed to them not a little crass, Emily Post pointed out that Mrs. Wharton was doing well in a literary way without noticeably losing caste, and that the Duer girls were still asked to decent people’s houses, although they gladly accepted pay for whatever they wrote whenever they could get it. The Duer girls were Alice, who later became Alice Duer Miller, and Caroline, who wrote a book of etiquette of her own a few years ago.