How do the doyennes of good behaviour navigate some of life’s trickier moments?
“Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted birth; but it is an association of gentle-folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members.” —Emily Post, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home (1922)
When Emily Post, the doyenne of North American manners, released her first book in 1922— complete with instructions for visiting cards and thank-you notes “To a Formal Hostess After an Especially Amusing Week-End” and separate chapters on breakfasts, luncheons and suppers, balls and dances and, of course, weddings—she couldn’t have
imagined a world in which one accidentally cc’s one’s entire email list on an invite for a dinner for 10, party guests rapaciously post pictures of private events for every manner of vulgar person to ogle or—worst of all—young, even unmarried (!), ladies peck at a tiny black box in their hands rather than make conversation with other guests.
“People always like to think she’d be disappointed,” laughs Lizzie Post, Emily’s great-great-granddaughter, co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 19th Edition, copresident of the Emily Post Institute and co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast. “Emily always tried to embrace modern technology, modern style and modern communication, but at the same time she always asked if those changes were considerate and respectful for all parties involved.”
While weddings are a multi-headed beast all their own when it comes to the list of potential faux pas, the age of digital communication can trip up the hosts and
guests of everything from the smallest of dinner parties to a 35-person baby shower (So. Many. Baby. Showers.) to a cocktail party for 100. We spoke to Post as well as two very active modern-day hostesses—Suzanne Cohon, the founder of ASC Public Relations in Toronto, and Liz Trinnear, the Los Angeles correspondent for CTV’s etalk— about how they navigate entertaining and partygoing in the digital age.
INVITATIONS If you were to get a paper invite in the mail for brunch at a friend’s, you’d wonder why he was being so extra. And if he called you on the phone? Obviously he must be dying. Other than for weddings—and sometimes baby and bridal showers—paper or phone invites have largely disappeared from the social life of 2019 and been replaced by email, Facebook events, online-invite sites like Paperless Post and text messages, each coming with its own pluses and perils. “I would try to choose media that really inspires guests to RSVP easily,” says Post. “I could sit here and say that handwritten invites are so kind and so beautiful, but if nobody replies, they’re not that useful. You really want to think about how the group typically communicates.”
Post says that with her immediate circle of friends, she often organizes things via group text, which is great— until everyone replies to the entire group instead of the person who started it. “I came back to 47 text messages one day,” she says. “This crowd has a sense of humour, and things were definitely not appropriate on my phone for a while. Group texts can be fun, but they can also be really inconvenient. You have to remember to respond to just the host.”
Trinnear—who is married to musician Nathaniel Motte (one-half of electropop duo 3OH!3) and counts well-known, creative L.A. types among her friends— says she prefers using Paperless Post or email but has seen some epic fails with those, too. “I was recently invited to an event via email; they didn’t bcc, and I was mortified to see the addresses I had access to,” she says of the celebrity-heavy event. “That is a party-invite major foul, especially when you’re dealing with sensitive contacts.”
Cohon points out that another common stumble with email invites happens when you’re cutting and pasting names. “There were times when I extended an invitation and it was supposed to go to Andrew and Rebecca but it was like ‘Hey, Ted and Babs!’” she says. “Everything is coming in and going out so quickly digitally; these mistakes are just so much easier to make than you think.”
“A computer is the way to do it,” says Trinnear of digital invites. “Not your smartphone, because they sometimes have a mind of their own. One wrong swipe or tap and you’re doomed.”
Cohon still uses the phone-talking machine (So retro! So chic!) for smaller gatherings and paper invites for more formal ones, like showers, where she wants guests to have a memento, but she is a fan of Paperless Post for larger bashes because the host can see the guest list at a glance. “Heaven forbid someone slips your mind,” she says. “With online-invitation services, you can act on it immediately.” The downside, she says, is that guests are much more likely to forward a digital invite. “With my bigger events, the invite gets forwarded around—people are like ‘Oh, are you going to this?’ If they got a proper printed invitation, they wouldn’t act that way. When people get something digitally, it’s open season.”
Cohon says she’s had friends unwittingly extend an invitation to uninvited acquaintances for one of her larger parties more than once this way. Gah! Page Emily Post! “Usually I’ll send an email saying ‘I understand you were speaking to so-and-so about our cocktail party—if you guys are around, I’d love you to join,’” says Cohon. “I think it’s better to be inclusive rather than exclusive.” But if it’s truly an intimate affair, or one where, for whatever reason, the extra guest isn’t welcome, it’s on the flippant forwarder to clear things up, she says. “I’ll talk to the person who forwarded it around and say ‘You’ve got to figure out how to back it up!’”
Post is pro online-invite sites, but if you use them, she says, it’s best to go to the minor extra expense of using the paid options to avoid spamming your guests with ads.
“I prefer the ones that don’t send out advertisements or require you to sign in,” she says. “I don’t think you should ask your guests to do extra work, and you shouldn’t be sending your guests commercials.”
None of our hostesses are fans of Facebook invites for parties, mostly because people might not check it and especially because of the dreaded “maybe” RSVP option, which can leave party throwers at awkward loose ends when trying to figure out the final head count. Speaking of RSVPing, if you’re a guest, do it. Or, says Post, if you’re not sure, let the host know when you will know and be sure to follow up in time for them to accommodate you. “Someone is inviting you to a party. That’s a nice thing—try to be helpful!” says Post. “We hem and haw over whether we’re going to want to go by the end of the week or whether there’s a better offer coming.... I do think Emily would have been really disappointed with people’s RSVP skills. She would have found it tactless and oftentimes neglectful.” I H EAR T MY PHONE Should you, or should you not, be looking at your phone while you’re at a soiree? “I’ve been on my phone at a dinner party before, and when someone points it out, you really do feel like the garbage person,” admits Trinnear. “It’s like ‘I’d rather be talking to the people in this little black box than the people in front of me.’ Give the person who invited you to the party the courtesy of paying attention and being present—it’s so easy for us to look and swipe; we’re all
guilty of it. I’m a big fan of people saying ‘Put your phone away; be here.’”
Cohon is also not a fan of obsessive phone use at private parties. “I’m like ‘Why are we all here?’ If you’re constantly checking your phone, you could be on your sofa eating takeout. If someone has a child who’s sick, I get that. But this obsessive looking at Instagram? I find it totally offensive.”
Post says that the amount of phone usage that’s appropriate really depends on the overall vibe of the affair and that there are no hard and fast rules, except for one—absolutely no phones on the table. “When you leave [your phone] out, it’s a ticking time bomb,” she says. “You know it’s going to go off at some point.”
SOCIAL MEDIA: TO POST OR NOT TO POST
“There are two different types of parties I get invited to,” says Trinnear about how she gauges how much posting to do about any given event. “I always ask ‘Do you want me at your party or do you want me to post about your party?’” For business-related gatherings or events meant to drum up publicity, the answer is usually obvious: The hosts absolutely want you to post about their party and will often furnish hashtags to help you do so. But the lines get murkier when it comes to private entertaining. “For work stuff, great—put it out there, tell all your friends!” says Cohon. “But when I’m entertaining at home, I want people to make memories and not be so consumed with putting it out there and making sure that they’re witty or the picture is great.”
Cohon says she’s also sensitive about hurting the feelings of those who weren’t invited. “I’m not hiding anything,” she says, “but I don’t like rubbing it in people’s faces.”
Post says that it never hurts to simply ask the hosts if they want you posting about the party. “Just ask ‘Why not?’” she says. “It’s not your house—it’s nice to ask before you take pictures and post them on the internet.”
One etiquette no-no is neglecting to ask other guests before you post pictures of them, especially if you’re tagging them. Trinnear points out that many people have the location turned on in their Instagram, which can provide an unwanted real-time GPS for anyone who ends up in one of those snaps. “I’m very aware that sometimes people don’t want to be on social media,” says Trinnear. “I always ask people if it’s cool that I post. The same goes for security reasons—you’re basically opening up a door for anybody to narrow down where you are. There are creepers everywhere, whether you’re a public figure or not.”
Cohon points out other reasons you should ask before you post pictures of people or tag them on social media, including potentially incriminating pictures of someone being out the evening they called in sick or, for example, getting caught wearing a loincloth. “We had a big Halloween party, and it was mandatory costumes,” says Cohon. “If you’ve got a 50-year-old guy dressed as Tarzan and he has to go to his bank job on Monday, it might not be so well received. We have to be respectful of the fact that not everybody wants to be broadcast to the world.”
“I’m like ‘ Why are we all here?’ If you’re constantly checking your phone, you could be on your sofa eating takeout. I find it totally offensive.”