The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette, Updated

To many people, the word "etiquette" implies white gloves, finger bowls, children curtsying, and other genteel manners that once were the hallmark of proper behavior. But few people know the actual etymology of this rather daunting word that describes a system of conventional rules that regulate social behavior. The word literally means a "ticket" or "card," and refers to the ancient custom of a monarch setting forth ceremonial rules and regulations to be observed by members of his court. As far back as Anglo-Saxon times, consideration for others, as well as observance of a monarch's rules, was a part of etiquette, as demonstrated in the epic poem Beowulf, written around A.D. 700, when Queen Wealtheow, "mindful of etiquette," offered the goblet first to the king, then to the courtiers, and finally to herself. And through the centuries the observance of such consideration has remained unquestioned.

While elaborate court rituals have gone the way of other archaic customs, "mindful etiquette" remains constant. Conversely, the world around us never remains constant. Since 1978, when the last edition of this book was published, we have seen new technologies surface that call for modifications in our social customs. For instance, technology has given us the fax machine, voice mail, and cellular phones. Women now play a more prominent role in our work force; thermography frequently replaces engraving; and smoking is not allowed in most public places. Even the basic structure of our family life is very different. Divorce is no longer the exception; the single parent is not unusual; the unmarried couple living together is commonplace; Ms. is a title firmly rooted in our language; and more women than ever are keeping their surnames after marriage.

As would be expected, the more conventional aspects of etiquette that are so much a part of our daily life--being considerate of others, teaching children table manners, letter writing, gift giving, being a guest at a wedding, getting along with coworkers--are covered with equal importance, as are occasions that center around formal dinner parties and dances, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs, and other time-honored rituals. On these more formal occasions when we want to put our best foot forward, an understanding of traditional etiquette is practical as well as reassuring. There's a certain satisfaction that comes with putting our best foot forward. Just as we admire the lawyer who knows how to win a case, the speaker who knows how to hold the audience's attention, the corporate president who knows how to chair a meeting, so too are we admired when we make our guests feel at ease, plan the perfect wedding, or give a loving eulogy.

While the intention of this book is to help you communicate well with others and to feel confident in social situations, bear in mind that it is not the end of the world if you use the wrong fork, stumble over an introduction, or stand up when you are the one being toasted. Still, you'll feel a lot more relaxed if you are familiar with the code of behavior for any given occasion; well primed in this respect, you will find yourself concentrating on others rather than yourself, and--not the least--you'll be better able to enjoy yourself. As Amy Vanderbilt wrote in the introduction to the original 1952 edition: "I believe that knowledge of the rules of living in our society makes us more comfortable...[although] some of the rudest and most objectionable people T have ever known have been technically the most "correct."...Some of the warmest, most lovable, have had little more than an innate feeling of what is right toward others. But, at the same time, they have had the intelligence to inform themselves, as necessary, on the rules of social intercourse as related to their own experiences. Only a great fool or a great genius is likely to flout all social grace with impunity, and neither one, doing so, makes the most comfortable companion."

Few people will read this book from cover to cover, nor are they expected to. However, like any reference book, there is a place for an etiquette book in every home library and on every office bookshelf. Even the most sophisticated man or woman cannot hope to remember every single aspect of etiquette that applies to even one possible social, or for that matter business, situation. Most of us remember only those details that have or had a relevance to our own way of living. This book addresses as fully and as simply as possible all the major questions of etiquette. It is here for you to turn to when the need arises.



Certain formal occasions in our lives remain rooted in tradition. When we have an audience with the Pope, visit the White House, or salute the flag, we follow longstanding customs that require specific codes of conduct. Observing these customs helps us feel at ease in situations of an official nature, knowing what is expected and how to behave.

Where change has entered into our personal lives most obviously is in our social customs. Contemporary living includes dual-city marriages, unmarried women having children, gay couples adopting, as well as terms like "latchkey" child. Needless to say, the rules for behavior in these situations were not imposed by social leaders but rather were created by people whose circumstances made them feel confined by certain conventions and so were motivated to extend the bounds of accepted social behavior. Although not everyone may sanction today's social options, they are discussed here because they aren't going away and must be addressed.



The family can be a great joy, a loving refuge from a difficult world. But it can also be the source of great stress. The tone of a household is determined by the people who run it; in a traditional one, that means the mother and the father. Today it may also mean a single parent, occasionally a gay couple, or two adults of either sex who simply opt to live together. Luckily for us, we have been raised in a society in which democratic principles filter down to the private level. Most heads of American households operate not as dictatorial autocrats but more as chairpersons who help guide the family toward order, stability, and harmony. You and your spouse can create a home that is pleasant to live in and a joy for friends to visit by keeping three things in mind: Maintain your mutual respect. Keep communication lines open. And never, ever, lose your sense of humor.


If each of us lived in a protective glass bubble, never encroached on anyone else's living space, and never interacted with another soul, there would be no need for manners. We could simply do as we pleased, go about our business, and it wouldn't matter to anyone else. But since Homo sapiens is gregarious and likes to establish and live in communities, and even in more intimate settings such as houses or apartments, rules of conduct are imperative. The starting point for all rules is the need to treat others with as much kindness and courtesy as you would like them to treat you with.

That means keeping your more self-centered instincts in check. The best way to do this, especially in a family with school-age children, is to establish some guidelines for living together. In the case of a large family, where lots of cooperation is required just to get everyone out the door each morning, it can make sense to periodically hold a kind of town hall meeting at the dinner table. There, members can hash out rules about keeping the bathrooms and bedrooms neat, telephone use, television viewing, guest policies, the sharing of common living space. Rules can be revised weekly or monthly. Such organized rap sessions can defuse daily squabbles because family members know their grievances will have a chance to be aired. A scheduled meeting also gives the aggrieved parties time to come up with constructive solutions to their problems, instead of simply voicing continual--and annoying--complaints.

Parental unity plays a major factor in keeping a household harmonious. Parents who are obviously divided on such basic subjects as permissiveness, religion, work, money, education, exercise, will send conflicting messages to their children. Some children, sensing the discord, may even try to intensify the friction by playing parents off against each other to their advantage. Whenever possible, it's best to settle divisive issues behind closed doors. Children want and need consistency.

Another potential point of friction is the extended family. Almost everyone comes to a marriage with some other family ties--and it's wise to decide policy on future in-laws well before the wedding. Remember, in each culture, in-laws have different expectations. If, say, a woman marries a man who was born in some faraway European city, his parents and distant cousins may see nothing wrong with their making impromptu visits of a few weeks at a time when they feel like it. On the other hand, even the most pleasant in-laws who live close should be sensitive about making unannounced visits. When grandchildren arrive or a parent-in-law is widowed, the entire extended family structure may need to be reevaluated, particularly if you decide to make one or more of your in-laws a permanent resident in your home.
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