New etiquette gurus find an audience on the Internet

  • Article by: ALEX WILLIAMS
  • New York Times
  • April 21, 2013 - 1:57 PM

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 same-sex weddings, online dating and Paperless Post invites — 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,” 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? 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. It has been viewed more than 3 million times.

But perhaps the fastest-growing area of social advice — one that has spawned not just videos but websites, 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 and re-tweeting too many Twitter messages.

“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.

“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 websites or online newsletters such as 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,” Zuckerberg said.

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

The return of Emily Post

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 out of style,” said Christine Carswell, publisher of Chronicle Books, which will publish “The Forgetful Gentleman” by Nathan Tan in May.

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 one chapter. Instead, he devoted an entire book to it, “Emily Post’s Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online.”

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

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 this month. MacPherson 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 OK to leave your cellphone on the dinner table,” 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.”

It’s hip to be proper

Meanwhile, there is a retro allure to etiquette that appeals to twenty-somethings.

“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,” said Pam Krauss, publisher of Potter Style.

In some circles, old-school manners, like vinyl records 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.

“There’s this idea in sociology that every generation rebels against its parents and makes friends with its grandparents’ generation,” 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.”

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