The History of Etiquette – Part 3

by Claire Valenty on November 14, 2010

From Emily Post to Wired!

We left off in Part 2 with the introduction of a modern phenomenon in the history of etiquette: the nineteenth century etiquette manual. In this part, we will look more closely into these tomes of conduct, and will also explore the decline and (hopefully) rebuilding of etiquette as we move into the 21st century.

Etiquette Manuals of the 19th and 20th Century

Many etiquette manuals began appearing in the late 19th century, as well- bred people clambered to figure out how to do what, and when. These early books gave advice on a broad range of issues, including “regular bathing, quilting, management of stoves…and straw bonnets.” [1] The authors of these books, which included women who had personal knowledge of the world of social privilege, as well as writers who hid behind pen names, utilized folk proverbs, literary references, customs, and religious sanctions to enforce their pronouncements. The demand for these books was high, and people followed their advice. Thus, the stage was set for the appearance in 1922 of Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home by Funk & Wagnalls. Penned in ten months, the book has gone into eleven editions, and has sold over a million copies. [2] People wanted to know what to do, and Emily Post delivered! Amy Vanderbilt followed the lead with her own brand of informal etiquette advice suited to the culture of the 1960s and the 1970s. Both she and Ms. Post live on as franchises. [3] Picking up the torch for the late 20th century is Judith Martin, known to her readers as “Miss Manners,” a gentlewoman who delivers the word on etiquette with a signature mix of humor and detachment.  Other books that have influenced the way Americans behave in the 20th century include Dale Carnegie’s bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People and Stephen R. Covey’s well-read 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.

The Decline of Etiquette in the 20th Century

Despite all of the etiquette manuals and how-to guides, however, etiquette in general took a sharp and drastic turn in the late 20th century. It went south, suddenly. Terribly so. A 2008 article in Smithsonian, “Choosing Civility in a Rude Culture,” states the following statistics: “incivility costs the nation more than $100 billion a year in accidents on the road [and] billions more are lost to diminished productivity at work.” [4] A Harvard Business Review study shows similarly disturbing stats. In response to rudeness at work, 48% of employees decreased their work effort, 36% said their performance declined, and an alarming 63% lost work time avoiding the offender (that’s a lot of time spent taking the stairs rather than the elevator!). [5] And while the statistics regarding money and time point out the actual cost of rudeness, the results of a study by Public Agenda, a non-profit organization dedicated to unbiased public opinion research, highlights how Americans feel about the rudeness, with 73% of those surveyed agreeing that they believe Americans of the past treated one another with greater respect, and 79% stating that the lack of respect and courtesy should be regarded as a serious national problem. [6] What sort of rudeness are we talking about? Everything from your garden variety “loud person talking on his or her cell phone in a restaurant” to the troubling “snarky anonymous comment in the internet chat room” to –gasp!– Joe Williams calling President Obama a liar during the president’s health care speech. Let’s face it: if our highest-ranking politicians can’t follow the guidelines of basic civility, what is in store? Is there hope for courtesy and respect? And how is this impacting us overall (besides making us want to whip the deadbolts into place and stay inside the confines of our safe and civil living space)? Although one’s sense of survival may cause one to barricade one’s self away from the rude, Professor P. M. Forni, founder of the Civility Initiative at John Hopkins, suggests the solution is to go among the rude and be civil. “A better quality of human interaction makes for a better life,” he notes. “A saner, more meaningful, healthier, and happier life. It is that simple.” [7]

Where Are Americans Learning Manners Nowadays?

Forni’s statement begs the question: where do we learn our manners? The answer, as we enter the 21st century, is that opportunities abound. Some lessons come to us easily, and are free and easily accessible to the culture at large. Consider, for instance, the lessons we glean from popular television shows. Office etiquette is often a subject of shows that take place in the workplace, such as Mad Men, The Office, and even Ugly Betty. It has been suggested that the hit show Seinfeld is a “modern comedy of manners” that examines our obsession with following prevailing social codes. [8] From July 5, 1989 to May 14, 1998 (and many re-runs since), Americans watched as the sitcom’s characters pondered the absurdities of modern conduct, including everything from how to behave on a subway to how to use a public telephone (simply do as George does and yell at the person using the phone, “You know, we’re living in society! We’re supposed to act in a civilized way!”). [9] Beyond television, there are more accurate means of acquiring manners that have formed in the true American fashion of “where there is a need, we will start a business to supply it.” Americans need etiquette. The business have arrived, from formal  manners schools, such as the Magnolia School of Etiquette, founded by Jonnie Fox Flanagan, which offers etiquette enrichment classes with emphasis on social and dining skills to K-12 students, [10] as well as college seminars, such as the 10-week long “Ain’t Misbehavin’: Civility, Manners, and Society,” offered by Kathleen Hull at Rutgers, with a focus on teaching students how to present themselves in interviews, and even on dates. [11] Similar etiquette schools and courses are popping up nation-wide.

Etiquette, as we have seen, has come a long way. Beginning with a prehistoric handshake and building to the ultimate refinement of the Victorian era, it grew and spread, moving in modern times into many areas of our lives. Emily Post kicked off the movement for etiquette guidance for Americans with the 1922 publication of her famous book, and—although etiquette may, in some ways, appear to be an endangered species as it struggles to keep pace with the rapid changes in our society during a time riddled with obnoxious cell phone users, aggressive drivers, uncivil politicians, and rude anonymous internet users—we have to remain hopeful that the next generation is able to acquire and practice much needed respect. As P. M. Forni notes: “Nothing less than our future hangs in the balance.” [12]

© 2010


1. Gerald Carson, The Polite Americans (New York: William Morrow & Company), 167.

2. Gerald Carson, The Polite Americans (New York: William Morrow & Company), 238.

3. Mark Caldwell, A Short History of Rudeness (New York: Picador USA, 2000), 65.

4. David Zax, “Choosing Civility in a Rude Culture,”, December 1, 2008, accessed November 4, 2010.

5. “The High Cost of Rudeness at Work,” Business Management Daily, accessed November 4, 2010.

6. “Land of the Rude: Americans in New Survey Say Lack of Respect is Getting Worse” Public Agenda, accessed November 4, 2010,

7. P. M. Formic, Choosing Civility (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 184.

8. David P. Pierson, “A Show About Nothing: Seinfeld and the Modern Comedy of Manners,” The Journal of Popular Culture 34:1 (Summer 2000): 49.

9. “The Chinese Restaurant,” Seinfeld Scripts, accessed November 4, 2010.

10. “Bringing Manners and Etiquette Back to the Future,” Valley News, October 1, 2000, accessed November 4, 2010.

11. “Choosing Civility in the Face of Rudeness,” Rutgers, accessed November 4, 2010.

12. P. M. Forni, Choosing Civility (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 183.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jonnie Fox Flanagan May 10, 2011 at 11:56 pm

Thank you for referencing my name and business in your article. I just discovered it while doing a search. I appreciate that you selected my business over many options. I will recirprocate and post this article on my site as well.

Jonnie Fox Flanagan
Independent Etiquette Consultant
Certified by The American School of Protocol

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