What do you do when you're at a party, in the middle of introductions, and you forget someone's name? How about when you splash a glass of pinot noir all over the white carpet? Or - here's a tougher one - just exactly when does flirting with the host cross the line of proper decorum?
The answers to all these questions and more emanate from the Emily Post Institute, a 60- year- old empire of etiquette whose hallowed halls are hardly the citified cloisters you might expect. The Institute is on South Union Street in Burlington, sharing an understated office building with an insurance agency, a chiropractor and an attorney.
The answers to the aforementioned etiquette quandaries can also be found in Essential Manners for Couples, a new volume of tips by Peter Post. The Shelburne resident is the great- grandson of Emily Post, the granddame of good manners who during the early 20th century dispensed advice from New York. In the 1920s, "the two most powerful women in America were Eleanor Roosevelt and Emily Post," according to a 2001 article in Vanity Fair. After the Bible, Post's Etiquette was the country's most frequently stolen book.
Many of Emily Post's descendants and descendants- in- law continue to carry the manners mantle: Cindy Post Senning, who lives in Waterbury, wrote a parents' guide to etiquette last year, while Peggy Post, who lives in Florida, writes monthly columns for various magazines. Peter Post and six other staffers work out of South Union Street, where the Emily Post Institute has been located for nearly 10 years.
"It's a totally portable entity," he says of the business, which right now is booming. Post leads business seminars, writes for Men's Health, and regularly appears on national television programs. Thanks to readily available flights from Burlington, he gets around. But Post says he prefers Vermont - and, yes, New Englander attitudes - to pretty much any other place.
"There is really a pleasure in being in an area where people treat each other pretty darn well," he says. "There's less rudeness and less stress in this environment than, say, the suburbs of New York City."
Post's 2003 Essential Manners for Men was so successful that his publisher asked him for another hit. That led to the November release of Essential Manners for Couples. The book was a natural fit. "Etiquette is about building relationships," says Post. "It's not about rules, and it's not about how to do things proper and all that kind of stuff. It's about thinking, consciousness, and being considerate, respectful and honest."
To research Couples, he posted a survey on the Institute's website with questions both deep and shallow. "'What makes your relationship tick?'" Post says, recalling the survey. "'What happens in the bedroom - who steals the covers, and what do you do about it?' I wanted both the negatives and the positives."
To his surprise, many of the answers were less about everyday minutiae and more about intangible affairs. The position of the toilet seat is less important to people, for example, than "'Every morning, before he leaves, he says, "I love you,"' Post reports, and "'When we're at a party, she looks across the room and winks at me.' A lot of it had to do with connection, with communication, both verbal and nonverbal."
What about connection in the bedroom? The pointers in the book are strictly G- rated. "As far as physical intimacy goes, the etiquette is very simple: Whatever you do, whenever you do it, both people should be comfortable and be engaged of their own free will," he writes. Using "the prelude" as a euphemism for foreplay, Post suggests doing dishes together can get you in the mood. He also reminds couples to snuggle and cuddle after "the ultimate intimate moment." That's as steamy as it gets.
Of course, everything - including sex - is negotiable. It's more about the process by which one arrives at a mutually acceptable solution. In Couples, Post relays an anecdote about his great- grandmother. One day, she received a dozen letters asking which fork to use at dinner. Exasperated, she finally told her secretary she didn't care which fork they used. "Her comment crystallizes what etiquette is all about," writes Peter Post. "It really doesn't matter which fork you use; it matters that you use a fork."
So, while the book is full of how- to tips on dividing daily chores, it also delivers a good dose of practical psychology, covering common sense, compromise and respect in relationships.
Chapter 17 of Couples, titled "Extended Family Dynamics," includes a section devoted to the holiday season - a time when etiquette is put to the test. Forget about forks: For some families, good behavior may amount to avoiding sharp knives. So Post reminds readers to strike a balance around family traditions: be flexible enough to accept variations but also set firm limits, such as start and end dates for houseguests. "No open- ended visits," writes Post. "Repeat: No open- ended visits. No exceptions, and no excuses for not setting the parameters clearly."
Holiday tips that aren't in the new book: Post recommends preparing your mate for a family member's idiosyncrasy and coming up with nonpolitical, nonreligious conversation starters for the dinner table. And, while you're at it, don't forget to say 'please,' 'thank you' and 'you're welcome.'"