September 20, 2009

Sunday Afternoon Post

As ironic as many modern day readers might find it, Emily Post absolutely detests pretentious behavior. From what I can tell thus far, Emily does not define pretension, but rather provides her reader with examples of it. The examples range a variety of behaviors, but they all seem to fall under the broad category of behaviors that feign culture. Emily believes that false presentations of culture have become so problematic that she states culture to be:
[a] word rarely used by those who truly possess it, but so constantly misused by those who understand nothing of its meaning, that it is becoming a synonym for vulgarity and imitation.
In her world, the cultural impostor is a person in the poorest of taste. Right below the cultural impostor on Emily's list of people she holds in low regard is the individual who misguidedly exhibits behaviors in attempt to display evidence of culture and good taste when, in reality, those behaviors, per se, are evidence of the contrary. For example, as the last paragraph in chapter on long letters, Emily writes:
[n]ever sprinkle French, Italian, or any other foreign words through a letter written in English. You do not give an impression of cultivation, but of ignorance of your own language. Use a foreign word if it has no English equivalent, not otherwise unless it has become Anglicized. If hesitating between two words, always select the one of Saxon origin rather than Latin. For the best selection of words to use, study the King James version of the Bible.
Aside from the ethnocentrism with which Emily writes, her point makes a great deal of sense. It seems only proper that when writing to someone that you would use the vocabulary that the reader of your letter would most likely be acquainted. And, in 1922 America, most people would be at least well versed in the language of the Bible.

This thread of analysis leads us to Emily's central point on what makes good etiquette. To Emily Post, good etiquette is the practice of making people comfortable. And, from what I can tell, pretension tends to make people uncomfortable, and that is why it's so bad.

This post is part of an occasional series highlighting the rules of etiquette as recorded in 1922, by Emily Post in her seminal text Etiquette.


phonelady said...

I love it . thanks for sharing and for posting this .

PostMuse said...

What some perceive as pretension is simply intelligence. That also makes some people uncomfortable, which is why they perceive it as pretension. said...

Touche PostMuse. But I think that Emily would distinguish genuine use of intelligence with pretension.

For example, I speculate that she would consider mastery of one's own language more impressive than knowledge of a few words of a foreign language. So, in her world, the true challenge is in making yourself well understood is the true challenge, while using French phrases is a cop-out. Does that make sense?

Emily never writes about what she considers to be pretension on point, so this is just what I have inducted from her examples of pretension. ...of course, I've also had to strip away her xenophobia to get arrive at these conclusions, too.

Thanks for the comments!


PostMuse said...

Oh dear, my observation was not meant to be at anyone's expense. No touché intended. But, yes, making oneself well understood is indeed much more important than sounding "cultured" by sprinkling foreign words about like seasoning. I understand the thrust of Mrs. Post's argument, though I do believe it is more difficult to find those who are able to distinguish between intelligence and pretension today.

James said...

I couldn't agree more.

Thanks, again, for being such a great contributor. I love it when posts stimulate dialogue.


P.S. And leave it to me forget to proofread a comment about the importance of making one's self easily understood. Sorry about that.