Minding their manners -- and everyone else's
The Emily Post Institute, now in its fifth generation, keeps etiquette alive.
In 1922 Emily Post wrote a bestselling book that defined propriety for the masses and spawned an enterprise that’s now in its fifth generation, putting the lie to historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s maxim that well-behaved women seldom make history. “I think you can change things and still maintain your own ‘civil integrity,’ for lack of a better term,” says Emily’s great-great-granddaughter Anna Post, 33.
Emily’s very proper demeanor comes through in a 1947 black-and-white film, in which she appears just as you would imagine her in her mid-70s: bedecked with a double string of pearls, with a brooch at the neck of her flowery dress. Saccharine violins fade as she launches into a tutorial on proper table manners. “Manners at the most formal dinner party are exactly as they are at home,” she assures today’s YouTube viewers from across the decades.
Emily made history in a big way with Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home. The book likely resonated among the American public because its author emphasized how people should treat each other, not which fork they should use.
Emily’s great-grandson Peter (Anna’s father) recalls his famous ancestor as “the matronly grandmother, not the famous person. She was very strong-willed, individualistic, an A-type personality. But her greatest asset was her ability to put people at ease even though people were very nervous to meet her. She loved to know what they did. She was a curious individual, quite a delight to be with.”
Emily and her son Ned founded the Emily Post Institute (EPI) in 1946. From offices on the second floor of a former elementary school in Burlington, Vt., the institute updates Emily’s book, now in its 18th edition (subtitled Manners for a New World). It also churns out other books (28 are currently offered on EmilyPost.com) as well as syndicated newspaper and magazine columns that decipher the evolving standards of etiquette for diverse settings and audiences. EPI also conducts seminars on various aspects of etiquette. It trains independent professionals to present its licensed seminars in business and children’s etiquette. Through its website, it sells stationery, photo albums and other products, primarily for weddings.
While today’s rules of etiquette may have changed dramatically since the institute’s founding, the seven Post family members running EPI today say the three pillars of good manners—consideration, honesty and respect—have remained constant.
Becoming a household name
Peter, 62, the managing director of EPI, is as affable and easygoing as Emily was reputed to be. His great-grandmother “took the rules of high society and divulged them to the great middle class,” he says, “and made it possible for Everyman to know what those social customs were.” She did so with compassion, humor and even a touch of drama as she described how to navigate tricky human -interactions.
Born in 1872, the daughter of prominent Baltimore architect Bruce Price, Emily grew up in a well-to-do family; she was a debutante at ease with elite socialites. At age 19 she married Edwin Main Post, a New York banker. He was a philanderer, and the couple eventually divorced. Emily raised their sons, Edwin Jr. and Bruce, on her own and took to writing. Her first book, The Flight of a Moth, written in Europe, was a novel based on letters to her father. Emily wrote four more novels, which dealt with contrasting customs and manners in the U.S. and Europe. When a friend, Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield, suggested she write a non-fiction book about etiquette, she initially had no interest. She considered the topic—even the word itself —to be stuffy and trivial. But she was curious enough to read what was already written. Appalled at how wrong the advice was, Emily agreed to write a short primer. Some 300,000 words later, her first etiquette book was born.
She remained relevant through the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, World War II and beyond, addressing issues of the day in books and columns and over the airwaves. In the 1930s she became one of the first women on radio, presenting weekly broadcasts. During World War II, she addressed issues concerning women in the workplace as well as soldiers. At the height of her success, “the two most powerful women in America were Eleanor Roosevelt and Emily Post,” observed Vanity Fair in a December 2001 profile of Emily.
Her son Edwin (Ned) Post worked with her, mostly behind the scenes. After she passed away in 1960, Ned continued to run the company until 1965, when his son and daughter-in-law, William and Elizabeth, took over.
Third-generation members William and Elizabeth maintained the office in New York City until 1974, when they moved to Vermont. During her more than 30-year tenure, Elizabeth updated the original book multiple times and began branching into new niche markets, such as weddings, entertaining, business and teens. Like his father, William worked primarily behind the scenes, negotiating contracts. After Elizabeth stepped down in 1995, her son Allen’s wife, Peggy, succeeded her. She was soon swamped with the task of helping create the 16th edition of the general Etiquette book; meanwhile, requests for new books focusing on business, weddings and parents began rolling in. She needed help.
Peter, who had been running an advertising agency with his wife, Tricia, for 20 years, says his siblings “pointed a finger at me” and asked him to step in. “I was intrigued, and thought it would be fun to have a career change,” he recalls. He co-wrote the business book with sister-in-law Peggy, took his share of speaking engagements and accepted requests to write columns.
Peter’s sister, Cindy Post Senning, holds master’s and doctoral degrees in education, plus a nursing degree. She has considerable leadership and teaching experience: as an elementary school principal for six years, as a teacher of nurses and, most recently, as clinical director at a home health agency. Watching EPI take on a steep growth curve got her thinking about approaching etiquette from the angle of kids’ social development. With a team of nurses and teachers she outlined six developmental stages from birth through age 16 and began sketching out manners appropriate for each stage. In the late 1990s she left her job to work with Peggy on Emily Post’s The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kind, Considerate, Respectful Children (William Morrow, 2002).
EPI’s board of directors consists of Peter and Cindy and their two brothers, Allen (who made his career in finance) and Bill (a lawyer), plus Peggy. Members of the fifth generation are also involved in the thriving company: Peter’s daughters Anna, a spokesperson, author and presenter for EPI, and Lizzie, 29, the institute’s spokesperson and e-learning and video manager; and Cindy’s son Daniel Post Senning, 34, who serves as manager of web development and online content and is also a spokesperson and author.
Several factors have contributed to the company’s growth. First is the need to redefine rules and social customs as society continues to evolve. Second is the family’s ability to follow the values and manners they espouse. Third is EPI’s success in extending its brand. It has embraced new technology to bring its message to diverse audiences through multiple media.
Redefining the rules
People need help figuring out how to behave amid new realities. For instance, what are appropriate ways to interact on social networking or online dating websites? How does the financial downturn affect expectations about re-gifting, gift registries and tipping? Is it acceptable to text or tweet at a business lunch or at the family dinner table?
Although Cindy acknowledges that “manners change every five years or so,” the family defines new rules based on their core values of honesty, respect and consideration. “I do not think our society is ruder than it used to be,” Cindy says. “But we are a more casual, informal, society. And some people equate informality, casualness and rudeness. I do not. You can be informal and still be polite.” EPI offers guidance on achieving that balance.
Because life in the 21st century is so fast-paced, people don’t always make time for relationship building, Cindy says. “A lot of rudeness we see today is not intentional,” she explains. “We’re going so fast we don’t bother to say hello.”
Families who wolf down meals to rush to their various activities are missing the opportunity to practice the social aspects of eating, Cindy laments. “Our kids learn manners and social skills at home, so we have to make time to share meals with our kids,” she says.
Working with family
Peter and his siblings each own 25% of the company. When they were growing up, none of them had been expected to take over. None even spent summers working at EPI. “My parents’ greatest fear was that if we all took over and worked in the business, it would hurt the strong and positive relationship [we] have with each other,” says Peter.
“We agreed if we got to the point of impasse we’d give up the business before we’d give up the family,” Cindy says.
They have been careful to avoid typical family business pitfalls, and to make sure the fifth generation is prepared. “We didn’t want to put our kids in same position, to take over a business we had to learn in our mid-50s,” says Peter. “We wanted to get them involved so they could discover if they were interested, and [provide] some tutoring in the business without having it just drop in their laps.” Another way the company avoids some family business traps is to never let a parent supervise his or her own children.
At a recent presentation at the University of Massachusetts Family Business Center in Amherst, Peter noted that 12% of people who quit their jobs—in family or non-family companies—leave because of incivility. The diversity of today’s workforce can contribute to actual or perceived rudeness, he explained. “When you’re involved with family, it ratchets up that potential,” he said. Resentments can build when family members take each other for granted and don’t bother to express appreciation. Everyone in business should think before acting, recognize that perspective matters and avoid being rude, he said. And he recommended that family business members invest ten times the effort in these areas.
Peter says he tries to run the institute as openly as possible. “The biggest thing, when I took over as managing director a few months ago, was to remove the second-guessing,” he says. For example, he shares the company’s financial records with all staff, family and non-family. He also holds weekly meetings to brief the team on key issues and resolve problems.
Family members are expected to follow basic etiquette at home. But Peter acknowledges there’s always room for improvement.
For instance, recently Anna mentioned that she had become overwhelmed by her spokesperson responsibilities, which involve a lot of travel. “Until she articulated it, we weren’t aware of that,” Peter says. “We all had to sit down together and look at that frustration and how we could try to provide support. It’s important to look at the problem instead of the emotion behind the problem, to see if the frustration is reasonable. But this was a pretty rare occurrence, and there was no screaming or yelling at each other. It’s not as if we put out brush fires all the time.” Once Anna’s predicament was understood, some of her assignments were reallocated among other family members, Peter says.
Working with family members is “incredibly complex,” Anna acknowledges. “While it’s also very rewarding, it’s much harder to compartmentalize your life. You have to get really good at enforcing your boundaries with people you spend Thanksgiving with.”
Family members who work together often avoid discussing uncomfortable issues, Anna notes. The best way to bring up a sensitive topic, she advises, is to take a direct approach. “It’s important to ask in private, without any attitude: ‘I’m curious how you made this decision’ or ‘[I don’t understand] why you said that.’ But you can’t nitpick.”
“Managing that family relationship is harder than I thought it would be,” Cindy acknowledges. “If there was an issue with one of the girls I used to say, ‘Why don’t you just talk to Peter about it?’ That might be difficult because they see him as their father. It wasn’t until my son came [on board] that I appreciated that.”
Spreading the word
The EPI team contributes etiquette columns to Good Housekeeping, The New York Times, USA Weekend, The Boston Globe, and Brides.com. Daniel manages the company’s website, Facebook and Twitter pages and oversees the company’s Q&A blog. He also created Etipedia, an online encyclopedia of etiquette that houses content from all of the institute’s materials, searchable by keyword and organized in sections and subsections that match those in the 18th edition of Etiquette.
>When non-family member Dawn Stanyon, 47, joined EPI in 2005 as a public relations coordinator, the primary income-generating area was book publishing. The institute was presenting four or five seminars a year and had no time to focus on strategy.
“I saw the potential for growth,” says Stanyon, who is now EPI”s director of sales and relationships. “The people and product were there. So I started reaching out to corporations.”
Today, Anna, Peter, Cindy and Stanyon each give 20 to 30 presentations a year. Once a year EPI offers five-day train-the-trainer programs, which cost $5,000 per participant. This year, 15 people attended the business-training program, and four attended the children’s training program. Stanyon also helped develop a professional image-consulting arm.
Although Peter politely declines to give dollar figures, he estimates that all this activity has helped the company’s revenues increase by a factor of five or six since the mid-1990s. Emily Post may not have been able to imagine the concerns and conflicts of the 21st century, or to predict the success of the company today. But there’s little doubt that if she could, she would text or tweet her descendants to offer enthusiastic praise. Just not at the dinner table.
Jayne A. Pearl is a freelance writer, editor and speaker. She is co-author, with Richard A. Morris, of Kids, Wealth, and Consequences (www.kwandc.com), and of a new e-book, Kids and Money Guide to Shrinking Your Family’s Carbon Footprint (www.kidsandmoney.com).
Ten ways to build better business relationships
|Business Etiquette Behaviors||Family Business Application|
|1. Be on time.
|Don’t expect to be given a break because you’re family.
|2. Remember to say “Please,” “Thank you” and “You’re welcome.”
|Failing to use these simple words when speaking to family members sends a message that you take them for granted. You run the risk of having your request perceived as a demand, or even an expectation.
|3. Be prepared.
|Even if your name is on the door, do your job as if you are in danger of being fired for poor performance.
|4. Be aware you are representing your company in your attire, attitude and efforts.
|Don’t use “Mom” or “Uncle” when talking to family members on the job. You should strive to professionalize your role in other people’s eyes rather than infantilizing it.
|5. Harness the power of the sincere compliment.
|Don’t assume your family members know that you appreciate their efforts. But make sure your praise is genuinely deserved. It’s easy for a family supervisor to err on one extreme or the other.
|6. Pay complete attention in meetings.
|Your actions at meetings indicate to your family and non-family colleagues that you take you position seriously—or that you don’t. Failure to respect what people say at meetings can hurt morale.
|7. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Apologize and offer a solution.
|Family members should be as accountable as non-family employees, if not more so. Don’t allow mistakes to build up and feed into any unresolved resentments or negative family dynamics.
|8. Recognize that your actions outside of work affect you and your organization.
|Even when they’re not at work, family members’ actions reflect on the business, especially if your business carries the family name.
|9. Send handwritten thank-you notes for gifts, meals, favors done for you and big opportunities.
|Just as with apologies, thank-yous that go unwritten can amplify unresolved issues between family members.
|10. Embrace and use the principles of etiquette: Consideration, Respect and Honesty.
|The direct route is best when you’re unsure where you stand or don’t understand a decision. It’s important for family leaders to elaborate on how decisions get made so the next generation understands that process. When raising an issue, remember to be considerate, respectful and honest. A poorly worded question can be perceived as rebellious or attacking; a poorly worded answer can seem patronizing.
Source: Emily Post Institute
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