The Emily Posts of the Digital Age

/// The Emily Posts of the Digital Age

April 1, 2013  |  Blog

Are manners dead? Cellphones, Twitter and Facebook may be killing off the old civilities and good graces, but a new generation of etiquette gurus, good-manner bloggers and self-appointed YouTube arbiters is rising to make old-fashioned protocols relevant to a new generation.

Their apparent goal: to help members of Generation Y navigate thorny, tech-age minefields like Paperless Post invites, same-sex weddings and online dating — not to mention actual face-to-face contact with people they encounter in the offline world.

For instance, you may not think you need a tutorial on shaking hands when being introduced to someone for the first time, but Gloria Starr, an image consultant based in Newport Beach, Calif., begs to differ.

“When you shake hands, it’s two or three times up and down — from the elbow and not the wrist,” Ms. Starr says in one of her 437 YouTube videos, helpfully bobbing her right hand up and down in demonstration. Then “smile and introduce yourself.”

Or how about the way to conduct yourself at the gym? Videos on gym etiquette are a particularly hot Web topic of late, said Kevin Allocca, the trends manager for YouTube. One video, “Don’t Be That Guy at the Gym,” shows five men demonstrating various sweat-soaked faux pas, like the “meathead” who grunts loudly each time he performs a rep, or the self-anointed “coach” who offers unsolicited (and largely unwelcome) advice to other gym-goers. Posted last April, it has been viewed some 3 million times.

No arena of modern life, it seems, is too obscure or ridiculous for consideration. An instructional Web site called Howcast.com has a popular channel on YouTube that tackles weighty issues like how to handle flatulence in yoga class or how to behave at a nude beach. “If it would be unseemly to gape at that body part while it’s fully clothed,” the latter video instructs, “it’s downright rude to gawk at it undressed.”

On another video, one veteran of the fast-food industry proffers advice on how to act at a drive-in window (“Do not scream ‘hello’ as soon as you pull up to the speaker. Wait to be greeted”), while there are more than 500 videos on the momentous subject of how to properly set the dinner table.

But perhaps the fastest-growing area of social advice — one that has spawned not just videos but also Web sites, blogs and books — is the Internet itself, and the proper displays of what’s been termed “netiquette.” There are YouTube videos on using emoticons in business e-mails, being discreet when posting on someone’s Facebook wall, limiting baby photos on Instagram, retweeting too many Twitter messages and juggling multiple online chats.

“We’re living in an age of anxiety that’s a reflection of the near-constant change and confusion in technology and social mores,” said Steven Petrow, an author of five etiquette books including “Mind Your Digital Manners: Advice for an Age Without Rules,” to be published in 2014. (Mr. Petrow is a regular contributor to The New York Times, writing an advice column on gay-straight issues for the Booming blog.)

“Whether it’s wondering how many times it is acceptable to text a date before being seen as a stalker, or what the role of parents is at a same-sex wedding,” he said, “etiquette gurus are popping out from under tablecloths everywhere to soothe all those living in fear of newfangled faux pas.”

Such advice is dished out on Web sites run by protocol professionals like the dapper Thomas Farley, a television talk-show staple, and Elaine Swann, a San Diego County-based consultant, and in the online newsletter Dot Complicated, published by Randi Zuckerberg, the former Facebook executive.

“Many of these emerging etiquette issues are complicated because there are no clear-cut, black-and-white answers,” Ms. Zuckerberg said. A recent post on Dot Complicated dealt with how to respond to a request for money, something that Ms. Zuckerberg, C.E.O. of Zuckerberg Media, said she has had to deal with quite frequently. (Her advice: “Say no and say it quickly.”)

Young people “are getting sick of the irony, rudeness and snark that is so prevalent in their online lives,” said Jane Pratt, the editor in chief of xoJane, a women’s lifestyle site where etiquette posts are a popular feature. “The return of etiquette is in part a response to the harshness of the interactions they are having in the digital sphere.”

“Nice is very cool right now,” she added.

THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY is scurrying to catch up, with a flurry of new etiquette books. “Etiquette is a popular publishing subject right now because, yes, it’s true, good manners never go of style,” said Christine Carswell, the publisher of Chronicle Books, which will publish “The Forgetful Gentleman” by Nathan Tan in May.

Last year alone, three books that tackle such subjects were published by contributors to The Times: Henry Alford’s “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That: A Modern Guide to Manners”; Philip Galanes’s “Social Q’s: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today”; and the former “Ethicist” columnist Randy Cohen’s “Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.”

Other notable titles include “Miss Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life’s Dilemmas,” by Rebecca Smith, a British novelist who says she is a direct descendant of the “Pride and Prejudice” author, and “What Would Michelle Do? A Modern-Day Guide to Living with Substance and Style,” by Allison Samuels, a Daily Beast senior writer, who looks to the White House for guidance.

The social quandaries seem to be endless. Are you obligated to respond to Facebook party invitations? Is it rude to listen to your iPod while car-pooling?

When Daniel Post Senning, the great-great-grandson of Emily Post, was working on the 18th edition of “Emily Post’s Etiquette,” he found it impossible to cover technology in a single chapter. Instead, he devoted an entire book to it, “Emily Post’s Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online,” to be released as an e-book and paperback in April.

The book tackles questions like whether one should announce a serious illness on Facebook. (Yes, Mr. Post Senning said, but medical updates should be confined to close friends and family.)

Even the new gurus who position themselves as the embodiment of Old World civilities — currently fashionable, thanks to “Downton Abbey” — feel obligated to tackle 21st-century conundrums.

Charles MacPherson, who runs a school for butlers in Canada, has written his first book, “The Butler Speaks: A Guide to Proper Etiquette, Stylish Entertaining and the Art of Good Housekeeping,” to be released in April. An authority on such antediluvian rituals as spooning caviar, Mr. MacPherson nevertheless finds himself pondering whether one may keep a cellphone on the table during a dinner party, if the 4-year-old is at home sick with a baby sitter.

“It is never O.K. to leave your cellphone on the dinner table,” Mr. MacPherson said. “If you must go out and anticipate a call, first inform your hostess of the situation and keep your cellphone on vibrate and in your pocket or on your lap. In the event that it does ring, excuse yourself from the table — don’t explain why, just a simple ‘excuse me’ — and leave the dining room before taking the call.”

Meanwhile, there is a retro allure to etiquette that appeals to 20-somethings, said Pam Krauss, the publisher of Potter Style, which in September is coming out with “Modern Manners: Tools to Take You to the Top,” by Dorothea Johnson, a longtime expert in the etiquette world, with a foreword by Liv Tyler, who is Ms. Johnson’s granddaughter. “There’s a whole generation of young people for whom etiquette, much like cooking, sewing, and other ‘home arts,’ was not passed down from their parents or grandparents the way it would have been in years past,” Ms. Krauss said.

In some circles, old-school manners, like vinyl records, single-barrel bourbon and trilby hats, are relics of the Eisenhower era ripe to be reclaimed by young urban tastemakers, said Brett McKay, a founder of a men’s lifestyle blog, the Art of Manliness. The site has popular etiquette posts drawn from the lives of George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt. The latter, for example, learned he could be more persuasive in political debates when he stopped disparaging the opposition as “oily-Gammon, churchgoing specimens” and “classical ignoramuses,” according to one post on debating politics civilly.

“There’s this idea in sociology that every generation rebels against its parents and makes friends with its grandparents’ generation,” Mr. McKay said. “You see that with Generation Y dressing like ‘Mad Men,’ and you see that with etiquette. The baby boomers were about ‘let loose, be who you are.’ The ‘greatest generation’ was more formal, and people want to embody some of those grandpa values.”

Young women in the D.I.Y. demographic have also shown a new interest in manners, said Grace Bonney, the founder of Design Sponge, a popular home décor blog with a new weekly etiquette column. Etiquette posts, on things like “social media dos and don’ts,” have attracted five times the number of comments and Facebook “likes” as many other posts, she said.

“I think people are starting to see that it can be rewarding to put time into any effort that makes people feel more welcome in your home, whether that’s a great meal, learning to arrange flowers or just general etiquette for being a good host,” she said.

It is an open question whether the renewed interest will signal an actual shift in behavior, or if, like the latest diet books, the latest crop of etiquette guides will just gather dust on shelves. Good manners take work, after all.

“We don’t struggle for good intentions,” said Mr. Tan, the “Forgetful Gentleman” author. “We struggle converting our good intentions into action.”

Link: The Emily Posts of the Digital Age

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