For W magazine, by Marisa Meltzer.
In a world that is constantly evolving it’s comforting to know that how we interact with one another still matters, and it is both rooted in tradition yet flexible enough to keep up with a rapidly changing and culturally diverse world.”
So begins the just-released Emily Post’s Etiquette: Manners for Today, 19th Edition (William Morrow), written by Lizzie Post (a great-great granddaughter of Emily Post) and Daniel Post Senning (a great-great-grandson). Long gone are the questions of ashtrays on the dinner table and chaperones from past editions. Etiquette, they write, is a newly relevant topic in the era of technology.
What they are too polite to come out and say directly is that we live in a most impolite time. Yes, the internet, social media, texting, online dating are all relatively new and we’re all trying the best we can to make up the rules as we go along. But as anyone who has so much as glanced at their Twitter mentions or realized their best friend from high school unfollowed them on Instagram can tell you, people are monsters online. (I am tempted to use a less polite word than “monsters” here but I’m making an effort.) Luckily, the Posts have some ground rules for social etiquette in our online lives.
Let’s start with conversation. The Posts liken it to a tennis volley. “Mastering the art of everyday conversation means remembering that it’s a two-way street, with thoughts and ideas shared in both directions,” they write. Trouble comes when we come face-to-face with “the electronic brick wall” of online communication. They identify the problem as a combination of the mistaken belief we are anonymous, the ease of rudeness when not saying something to one’s face, and lax social skills. The antidote all of this is to “tear down your electronic brick wall” by spending time with others IRL.
Online communication is not just easier, in many cases, but unavoidable. Luckily there’s a chapter for that. They advocate for the send delay/undo send function on email, remind us that all caps means yelling online, and to use caution when replying all. They also weigh in on FaceTime/Skype (”take care with your appearance — or what’s going on in the background — before you switch it on”) and such matters as sharing devices (“your game can wait if someone has real work to do”). They take a hard stance against “read” receipts as insulting to the recipient.
They include a case study of someone who wrote an email including some “pretty catty comments” about a poor soul named Diane. Unfortunately, Diane was accidentally sent the message. Their advice? Contact her immediately and meet up, preferably in person, and apologize. “Admit your insensitivity and tell her how terrible you feel about hurting her…Ask for forgiveness, but don’t expect the friendship to be patched up overnight.”
There is something hugely satisfying about the Posts giving you permission to act a certain way. In a chapter called Life Online, the Posts guide us through further online dilemmas. It’s okay to: Ignore a friend request, untag yourself from a photo, delete comments, unfriend someone. There is in fact a whole section on unfriending and unfollowing. For example, they advise exes with children to consider staying friends online so kids can tag both parents in photos.
I would love to distribute their advice on commenting far and wide through some of the more untamed spaces online (Reddit, Kylie Jenner’s Instagram selfies). When commenting, the Posts remind, “Don’t insult, attack, or impugn someone’s character or even make fun of their typing skills.” It’s also not okay to use text-speak abbreviations when not texting, or to ignore punctuation for that matter.
The section on online dating is all too brief and largely covers safety and general rules of thumb. They advise online daters not to lie or embellish their profiles at the risk of losing trust. At the same time, you don’t have to respond to everyone who messages your online dating. And please, no ghosting. That is “hurtful and inappropriate.” This is mostly geared at the traditional online dating profile à la Match.com; there is no advice for searching for love on Tinder. And for those looking for something a little less committed than that on Grindr and the like, there is no advice on how to politely hook up with near strangers. Online porn is also, predictably, left out.
Even though this new edition of Emily Post makes some real forays into the online world most of us live in — for better or worse — there is much that goes uncovered. I started to keep a list of questions inspired by modern, technology-fueled life I had wished they would weigh in on. Like, how little can you wear in a selfie and still maintain that you’re a respectable, professional person? What does it mean when a married man sends you a perfectly innocuous Instagram DM? How many pictures can you post of your baby or puppy before your Facebook friends hate you? Is it bad taste to post photos of lavish vacations? Is it weird to reference a something you Tweeted in a conversation in real life? What if someone is pretending to be you on Tumblr? Can you send them an all-caps email then?
The original Emily Post said that, “Whenever two people come together and their behavior affects one another, you have etiquette.” The overarching message of the book is that it’s not our fault we are confused by these matters; it’s human nature. It takes practice to remember that every interaction, whether it’s online or off, affects other people and to act accordingly. And that is what it means to mind your manners.
And for those with conundrum that aren’t answered in the book, there is hope online. In their introduction to this edition, the Posts plug their podcast Awesome Etiquette and website for further advice. That’s apparently entirely appropriate.
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