In 1880 a publication entitled, “The Habits of Good Society” hit bookshelves in the U.S., outlining, in no uncertain terms, all the ways in which guests (particularly women) should conduct themselves in social settings.
Women were encouraged to never indulge in more than one glass of champagne and never to ask direct questions. “How was your day?” should be rephrased to, “I hope you had a pleasant day.” Those suggestions were on the mild end of a spectrum that ultimately set an exhausting manifesto for constant self-awareness. By midcentury, some rules had relaxed but many stipulations for women remained stubbornly in place, particularly those pertaining to personal appearance and interactions with men. A couple decades later, the 1970s rolled around and the Women’s Rights Movement took hold. Women were still beholden to a more rigid set of standards, but now there was a voice countering that pressure. For example, if a few friends were out to dinner, it was no longer improper for a woman in the group to pick up the tab. She was however still encouraged to discuss it at the start of the evening, so as not to “emasculate” the men in the group.
The Etiquette School of America notes that we now find ourselves in a unique era. Until recent times, changes to social norms tracked simultaneously with generational shifts. Children grew up, shook off the limitations of their parents’ generation, and wrote their own rules. Incremental shifts were reliably made every couple of decades.
Recently though, that dynamic has changed. The Etiquette School explains, “As a society, we move fast. We can no longer wait 20 years or more until the next generation gets around to writing the rules. The good news is that manners evolve and change to meet the needs and sensibilities of the current culture.”
The obvious upshot here is that the rules of polite culture have finally become more equitable, having been rewritten by a generation that values diversity and equality. In the eternal words of the Beastie Boys, “You gotta fight for your right to party.” The line may have been written by three white guys, but the truth is that women have been fighting for that teensy little right, alongside all the major ones, for years. So yes, it’s high time we enter an era of festive equality.
So, what’s changed in recent times? Specifically, adults no longer have to address each other by ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ We can all shake hands, hug and drink as many glasses of champagne as we like. Some of the classics, according to Emily Post, still remain relevant in 2022. Be on time, respect the RSVP, don’t overindulge, offer to assist your host during the party and thank them after. Easy enough. The realm of unspoken etiquette, though, remains a bit trickier to navigate.
Most people have grown up with the adage that you don’t discuss politics or religion in social settings. Add money and sex to that list and you have four enduring pillars of taboo conversation. But, like so many adages when scrutinized, these absolutes break down a bit. Certainly, you don’t want to be the guest who alienates your host or fellow partygoers. Everyone has endured a dinner with ‘that guy’ at the table. It’s insufferable. However, when you’re gathered among reasonable friends capable of engaging and stimulating conversation about real-world topics, there’s no need to completely avoid it. If anything, certain parties can feel like intellectual crowdsourcing, a way of gathering new perspectives from those we know and trust. The important thing to remember, though, is to be aware of the collective mood and to only engage in such conversations when it’s fun for everyone. To barrel ahead with your political monologue when there is no reciprocity would still be impolite partying at its worst.
While most rules of etiquette evolve and shift over the years, one guideline in particular has been developed completely from scratch in the last 20 years. As technology has become an increasing presence in our daily lives, we’ve established (often unspoken) rules about its place in certain environments. In general, phones should be silenced and tucked away at dinner parties or any work-adjacent event. In the early days of cell phone usage, that was easy. Phones were mostly looked upon as devices that could wait for a more convenient time. Nobody was sweating a missed call, having just moved on from the days of waiting until they arrived home to check an answering machine. Over the years, phones have become more prevalent, eventually taking up real estate on our wrists as a constant technological companion. These days, it’s understood that there are some (polite) exceptions to digital abstinence. If you absolutely have to take a call, sneak a text, or just secretly, desperately want to check the score of whatever game you’re following, simply excuse yourself and find a quiet spot away from your fellow revelers.
All in all, partying is serious business and carries an ever-shifting set of rules. Women now have a place at the table, but we also have to contend with digital alerts interrupting our social interactions. We have more equity and greater freedom to discuss ideas and important events, but need to be sensitive to other perspectives.
The only thing that hasn’t changed, and probably won’t any time soon, is the undying art of gratitude. Be helpful and thank your host. Everything else is simply a suggestion.