Holiday Manners: Making The Most Of Being Polite

Nov 28, 2013
Originally published on November 28, 2013 3:34 pm

It’s the holidays. You and your loved ones and friends have just enjoyed a beautiful meal. Now it’s time for the daunting pile of dirty dishes. Is it appropriate to ask your dinner guests to help with the dishes?

Cousins Daniel Post Senning and Lizzie Post, who are descendants of Emily Post — the foremost manners and etiquette expert to the rich and rude from the 1920s on — join Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to share advice to help us navigate the holidays.

Both work with the Emily Post Institute and they are co-authors of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th Edition.


  • Lizzie Post, etiquette advice expert with the Emily Post Institute and Emily Post’s great-great-granddaughter.
  • Daniel Post Senning , etiquette advice expert with the Emily Post Institute and great-great-grandson of Emily Post.
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Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays: the food, the friends and the family. And it really gives me great joy, but, yeah, sometimes, as family members do, we can push each other's buttons as well. So how do we stay grateful at the dinner table when, sometimes, we're just grinding our teeth instead?

Let's turn to cousins, Daniel Post Senning and Lizzie Post, for advice. They are two great, great grandchildren of the original miss manners, Emilie Post, the woman who in the 1920s educated Americans in the fine art of etiquette. Her legacy continues at the Emily Post Institute in Vermont. Dan and Lizzie Posts join us from the studios of Vermont Public Radio. And thank you both for being here.

LIZZIE POST: Thank you so much for having us.

DANIEL POST SENNING: It's really a privilege to be here.

HOST: It is a privilege to have you on our program. And I feel that I should be - I'm sitting up as straight as I can now.


POST: We've got a scorecard, you know?


HOST: Of - and being sure that I am as gracious as a host should be. But let me first ask you, I have always thought that Thanksgiving has the unique sort of mandate of everyone - is the one meal that really - the meal is the purpose. And everyone actually has to be physically together around the same table, elbow to elbow. This might be people that you see every day or maybe you haven't seen them in months or years. And because of that, I mean, there's a lot of potential minefields, aren't there?


POST: It's true. Almost in our excitement to be together or some people feeling like, oh, man. This is the time. I've got to put it on and going into that with that attitude of, OK, I'm going to have to put up with, you know, Uncle Chris' bad jokes or, you know, so and so's repeated questions. It sort of clouds what that special day all about. And we really try during our advise this time of year to remind people, what are you going for and don't take the bait, you know? Laugh at one of those jokes, but then, you know, get him going on a different part of the conversation so that you can enjoy yourself with this person.

HOST: Right. So how do we do that, though, because I mean, we're living in times where, OK, say politics comes up. It's great fodder for a conversation, but it can also really drive a wedge between people who love each other on every other front. How do you handle that?

SENNING: Anticipate ahead of time and bring your best self to the situation. This is a special event. It's a special day and you wanted to further (ph) it maybe slightly behavior. You want to be thinking about the effort that others have put in to making that meal a special time, being there together.

POST: And truthfully, your host can take the conversation and direct it somewhere else.

HOST: Should we be looking to the host, or will be relying on the host sort of be that navigator of those rocky shoals of uncomfortable conversation?


SENNING: One of the great skills and etiquettes, identifying the role that you're playing in a given situation. And if you're the host, helping your guests navigate those minefields is a great role to play and to assume as a host. And as a guest, it's nice to defer to the host and let them play that role. Another classic etiquette concept that - it would be great if everyone understood the idea that there are tiers to a conversation. There safe, small talk territory, and then there's potentially more difficult, the controversial topics of religion or politics or your love life or dating.

And in my family, we used to call those topics NTT or not table talk, because they were potentially controversial and people have strong opinions about them. So you didn't wade to deep into that territory at the table. That was a discussion that you save for times when you knew people were going to be interested and enjoying participating.

HOST: Well, here's the irony that I struggle with regarding all the great advise that you just gave us in Thanksgiving.


HOST: Because you think that with your loved ones and family members that that is one space where you should feel free to discuss anything.


HOST: And yet, what I'm hearing you say is be prepared to sort of have those NTT subjects...

POST: Mm-hmm.

HOST: ...even if it's, like, you know, with your brother or your mother. I mean, why is that? Why can't we just be more free with our family?

POST: So I think it's one thing to be more free with your family when you're on the phone or when you guys go out for coffee or lunch together. But this is a different event. This is your big family meal together. This is a special time.

SENNING: And I'd love to jump in. It's those moments of coming together that are going to provide a foundation for the relationship that's going to allow you to be more free in those other...

POST: Later on, yeah.

SENNING: ...areas where you may not agree on everything, or you might want to share a different political perspective. As you got that foundation of respect and treating each other well and dedicating that time together to being a good experience, that's money in the bank. And it's going to be - pay you back later.

POST: Such a good way to put it down.


So I want to ask you for advice on a couple other modern day challenges. What do you do about those phones and all those digital devices?

POST: I'm sorry. I just got a text message. Can you hold on a second?


POST: You want to shut them off and take the, you know, not have them on at the table.

SENNING: There are a very few prescriptions, very few don'ts.

POST: Yeah.


SENNING: One of the big don'ts is that you don't bring your cellphone to the Thanksgiving dinner table. I'm going to advice generally that you don't bring your phone to the dinner table or answer your phone during the meal. But let's just carve out this spectacular day, this particular meal and say no cellphones at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

POST: But I'm going to jump in with a caveat that says definitely take a moment and let people take a photo of the meal. A lot of people love doing photo sharing nowadays, so actually announce the time for it. Say, hey, you know, we're about to carve out the turkey. Anybody who wants to get, you know, a photo of the spread or take a photo of their plate right after they go through the buffet line, go for it. But then we're putting the phones away.

Do it in a fun light. If you say, OK, everyone take your pictures now because there's no phones at the table, you know, it's - at least people are understanding that you're trying to be happy about it. You know, it's all in how you do it.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, finally, I'm, you know, I'm looking at some of the information about the Emily Post Institute, and I was really taken by one line here. It says: Being considerate, respectful and honest is more important than knowing which fork to use. Do you think that people are getting enough of that sort of training on the fact that consideration and respectfulness is really the best way to be a gracious human being in this day and age?

POST: I think it's a little bit muddled, and I think we're trying as hard as we can to spread the word and change people's perception about etiquette. Because it really does boil down to how you handle the people around you, how you recognize that you're going to affect them in a certain situation and choosing to act in a way that's going to build that relationship and make it a positive experience for everyone. And I really hope that parents, more than anyone, can teach that to their kids. Instilling that respect and consideration for others, I think that would really make our world a better place.

SENNING: I'll tell you, Lizzie's sister Anna calls it the good news.

POST: So true.

SENNING: That etiquette is about more than the rules.

POST: Yeah.

SENNING: And it's so, so, so important to keep that mind because its so easy to get distracted by the rules. They're important, they're good to know, but really, what does matter is the quality of our interactions and how we treat each other.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Daniel Post Senning and Lizzie Post, both of the Emily Post Institute, thank you so very much for joining us today. And happy Thanksgiving to both of you.

POST: Thank you. And happy Thanksgiving to you too.

SENNING: Indeed.

CHAKRABARTI: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.