The death of etiquette

For proof positive that "gracious living" is now extinct, look no further than the new revision of Amy Vanderbilt's classic guide.

Topics: Books,

Fifty years ago, for the first time in history, Amy Vanderbilt set in print a clear explanation of how a man ought to behave toward his hat. While the impact of that cultural milestone is self-evident — Amy Vanderbilt’s “Complete Book of Etiquette” has sold more than 3 million copies to date — few readers have adequately appreciated the depth of her accomplishment. As scientifically grounded as Newton’s laws of motion, as skillfully elaborated as Robert’s Rules of Order, and as forcefully articulated as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Vanderbilt’s treatise on hats is the very model of what you ought to get in a book on etiquette.

Alas, outside a secondhand store, these days you won’t find anything of the sort. On her 50th anniversary, poor, dead Amy Vanderbilt has been “entirely rewritten and updated” by a retired White House staff coordinator and a personal-investment financial reporter. In the 786 pages between the revised book’s designer covers can be found the rubble of a toppled past arthritically cobbled together without the faintest idea of what it once meant. “The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette,” as authored by Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Dunnan, won’t tell you how to act at an Annapolis hop, and the advice it gives on conversational skills at parties is enough to ensure that you will never again have to worry about being on anybody’s guest list, but if you want to understand the demise of etiquette in America, this is the only book you need.

Of course even Amy Vanderbilt recognized that her tome wouldn’t be timely forever. “Change in etiquette usually comes slowly,” she conceded in her introduction, “just as changes come slowly in the dictionary.” So the relevance of her discourse on hats, for example, isn’t entirely applicable to today’s social climate:

In greeting a woman friend in the street or in some public place, once she has bowed first, a man actually lifts his hat from his head, turning his head slightly toward the woman and smiling, if he wishes, but not stopping unless she stops first. He must certainly not stop dead in his tracks and stare after her. If they do stop and talk, he should guide his companion out of the way of traffic after shaking hands — if she has made the first gesture to do so. He may return his hat to his head without apology if they are in the open and weather is bad, but he must not smoke.

Beyond the general absence of men’s hats these days, the usefulness of this advice is undermined by the greater concern of those who do with projecting their own sense of irony than with acknowledging the existence of anybody else in the universe.

The authentic Vanderbilt book is just plain old. Many questions of pressing concern in 1952 — “Does a secretary need a chaperone?” — are less than likely to be asked today, and certain advice — “A gentleman should never write anything in a [love] letter that might damage a lady’s reputation” — would have been best ignored in any age. Like a ’50s dictionary, lacking listings for “baby boomer,” “superconductor” and “blow job” — Amy Vanderbilt truly is in need of an update. The proper way to address a telegram to somebody traveling by train may safely be excised, while some preliminary attempt at establishing a standard of e-mail etiquette would be most welcome. But the overhaul Tuckerman and Dunnan have attempted is equivalent to anticipating changing usage in the dictionary by allowing every definition to apply to every word.

Like a good dictionary, a credible etiquette book is based on certain rules — subject to interpretation and eventual change — but rules sufficiently fixed and articulated with enough clarity to hold a certain authority. The word “breakfast” refers to the morning meal, and to serve it at night may be droll, but it isn’t correct. Just so, in Amy Vanderbilt’s 1952, a gentleman could greet a lady in the street without recourse to his hat, and might do so to make a point, but it wouldn’t be appropriate. (In fact, the point would be made successfully only if both parties knew it was improper behavior.) A rule of etiquette is only a rule if it can be meaningfully broken. In recognition of our timorous age, Tuckerman and Dunnan have composed a book in which it’s almost impossible to be rude.

This may have something to do with the way they went about writing their book. Whereas Vanderbilt opens her original edition by thanking “the many personal friends [who] have assisted me in my research” (conspicuously beginning the list with Eleanor Roosevelt), Tuckerman and Dunnan place foremost in their acknowledgments the professionals who have “commented and given advice on innumerable issues.”

Ours is an age in which amateurs have been driven out of almost every field by experts whose paying clients give them money to put them snugly in the right. Without question, readers of the 50th-anniversary edition of “The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette” get more validation for the $32 cover price than 10 times that sum could buy from even the most down-market personal therapist. And presumably their guide isn’t emptier than a bout of psychoanalysis. More useless books have been written. Yet certainly that’s no excuse.

Vanderbilt approached her book as a reflection of her social circle, under the guidance of her exacting first-person opinion. There’s astonishing snobbery to that, which is entirely appropriate: Etiquette is about how people in a certain culture behave, how they get along with one another and set themselves apart from everyone else.

Getting along is important for obvious reasons, but few today are willing to admit that it’s a function of exclusion as much as inclusion. The universe is larger than any of us is able to embrace in its entirety, yet every day technology (to say nothing of population density) pushes more of the world to our door. With too many people, too many voices and too few boundaries, a society loses its particularity, becomes as generic as the programming on TV.

In a world that lets us go where we like, affecting any appearance we choose, a code that distinguishes us from others — a set of gestures apparently as arbitrary as the sounds made by certain species of birds — is absolutely essential. To accomplish that, we need not be undemocratic: By setting the rules of her social set in print, Vanderbilt opened up the culture of her peers to anybody who wished to take the trouble to join. But, equally important, she didn’t sacrifice that culture by making membership as effortless and inevitable as breathing.

As it happens, breathing is one of the few matters on which Tuckerman and Dunnan have a clear opinion. They’re in favor of it. So much so, in fact, that they make reference to the Heimlich maneuver no fewer than three times — twice in a chapter titled “Entertaining With Ease” — going so far as to print the unsightly Choking Victim chart concealed in the darkest corner of every American restaurant. (“You can obtain a copy for your home,” they helpfully write, “by contacting your local Department of Health.”) What this has to do with etiquette as such isn’t explained, although the apparent propensity of gentlefolk to choke does seem to have inspired one of the few rules the authors give that can be said to fall under the heading of etiquette: “Gum should never be chewed, or disposed of, in public.”

Aside from that “common courtes[y] that no one should ever ignore,” there’s precious little that Tuckerman and Dunnan are certain about. When a rule is given, often it’s only as a preface to informing the reader that it need not be followed anymore: “The responsibility of asking somebody out on a date has traditionally fallen on the shoulders of the man. But today, anyone can do the inviting.” Controversial topics are dropped back in the reader’s lap: “Whether or not you wear fur is a completely individual decision.”

Even the most glaring faux pas is condemned only after a cautious preface: “Although swear words have gained a degree of acceptability in recent years, they should never be used in a business letter.” And what rules are given are often almost impossibly obvious: “The best wines are sold with corks, not screw caps, which means everyone needs a good corkscrew,” the authors assert shortly before delving into an elaborate explanation of the BYOB party (“a wonderful idea for young people on tight budgets who would like to entertain but could not do so otherwise”).

So one may wonder what the authors, having all but abdicated responsibility for instruction on etiquette, have done with all those pages. To look at how they took up so much space with so few rules is to see the underlying confusion that has overcome the very idea of etiquette in America today. The book, it turns out, is filled with advice on everything from personal health to family therapy, household management to physical fitness, job hunting to gift wrapping. It’s the Merck Manual and “Men Are From Mars,” “Hints from Heloise” and “Pilates for Dummies,” “What Color Is Your Parachute?” and “At Home With Martha Stewart,” all in one preposterous volume. A Tower of Babel for the age of self-help, it’s assuredly what we deserve. There’s something even the savviest social hypochondriac can learn:

Inserting Letter in Envelope: It once was said that if you inserted into an envelope a letter folded once, folded side down, the person opening the letter risked a paper cut. On the other hand, if the open side was down, the letter could be slit in half by the letter opener. What this means is that either way is correct: folded side or open side down.

The book is perfectly harmless. It’s practically padded at the edges. There’s even advice on avoiding personal injury while walking: “Use moderation and good sense and don’t push yourself too hard too soon. You are not being graded on your performance.” If every suggestion has one thing in common, it’s the lack of liability. Safety first.

That, then, is what etiquette has become. The original Vanderbilt chapter on “The Ritual of Drinking” is gone in favor of the advice that the dipsomaniac guest “get help with his problem,” and even “The Social Pleasantries” has been professionally renamed “The Art of Communicating.” But perhaps more notable than any omission inside the book was the elimination of the original title’s second half. Better than all the rules put together, it defined what true etiquette is about: Vanderbilt called her etiquette manual “A Guide to Gracious Living.” One page on the “presentation of the finger bowl,” 12 on respectful funerals, 80 on the perfect wedding, 120 on “manners and dressing,” are but a footnote to that simple concept, embellishment to an instinctual sense of decency and camaraderie that, like the words in a dictionary, may aid interpersonal expression.

Etiquette isn’t about personal health, physical fitness or gift wrapping. By defining everything as etiquette, Tuckerman and Dunnan wind up saying nothing. They ought to know better. “The euphemisms for ‘died’ are many, and range from the coy to the ridiculous,” they justly note. “We all die; death cannot be glossed over by inexact language.” So might as well simply say it: Etiquette, R.I.P.

Jonathon Keats is an artist and writer. His collection of fables, "The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six," was published this year.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>