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.

Published May 29, 2002 2:41PM (EDT)

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.

By Jonathon Keats

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 FROM Jonathon Keats

Related Topics ------------------------------------------