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Emily Post’s family teaching etiquette for a modern world

My Family Business

Think quickly! Does the person sitting in the middle seat on an airplane get both arm rests? Is it ok to email a thank you instead of sending a handwritten note? Should you tell a colleague with the flu to go home?

Questions best posed to Emily Post, who first published her famous book on etiquette in 1922. Today that legacy endures as her family is devoted to spreading the rules of good manners worldwide.

“We are a much more informal society than we use to be,” says Anna Post, who along with her sister Lizzie and their cousin Dan Post Senning are the fifth generation to work at the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vermont. She cites how we dress and how we speak as the most obvious changes. “It’s about being appropriate rather than formal."

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“We’re always updating Emily’s original book, currently in its 18th edition,” says Senning. “It also means keeping your fingers out there on the pulse of what's going on.”

Take that crowded airplane. Anna says if you’re in the aisle or window seat, be gracious to the person stuck in the middle. Move over a tad to allow for breathing room and ideally offer up the center armrests.

Another time to be courteous: when leaving a voicemail message. Anna recommends clearly stating your name, affiliation and phone number right up front, before launching into your message, and then repeating all three at the end. This allows the recipient to capture your number easily.

Social media is where things can get tricky on the etiquette front.

“People will text something to a friend that they might not ever say if they were standing with them. Or write it in an email because they don’t want to have to confront the person in reality,” says Peter Post, great grandson of Emily and CEO of the Institute. “I see this electronic brick wall as problematic -- within the social media world -- because it does give a false sense of safety to people.”

When you must deliver bad news, do it in person or by phone to the people closest to you—before sharing it on Facebook or via email with an extended audience, advises Anna.

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If a colleague is sniffling and coughing in the office, it’s perfectly acceptable to suggest going home.

And that thank you note? A change from etiquette rules of years past.

“An email thank you is ok. It’s not the best way to thank someone. If you can do that hand written note, it’s really important,” says Lizzie. “It’s a great skill to learn.”

The Posts themselves have had to adapt to get their message out, including the launch of e-learning programs. “In a tougher economy when people can’t always hire us to come and do what Anna and Dan do which are live in-house business etiquette seminars, they can purchase our program and deliver it to employees,” says Lizzie.

Coming soon: Etiquette bites, small chunks of advice available on your mobile device.

Yet despite our changing world and reliance on technology, the Posts believe good manners go back to basics.

“Etiquette clearly evolves there's no doubt about that. What doesn’t change is what we call principles,” says Peter. “Principles remain the same: to be considerate, to be respectful, and to be honest with the people in your life. That’s true whether it was 100 years ago with Emily Post and that's true today.”