Letitia Baldrige, author of several books (18!) including the bestselling New Complete Guide to Executive Manners and New Complete Guide to a Great Social Life, was Special Assistant to congresswoman-ambassador-playwright-socialite Clare Boothe Luce in Rome, worked as Jacqueline Kennedy's chief of staff, and made a name for herself in the business world working on the board of directors for major corporations and businesses, including her own public relations firm and marketing company, Letitia Baldrige Enterprises, Inc. Since 1978, she has been writing about manners. Her new book, New Manners for New Times is a completely updated guide on etiquette. She graciously let annabelle pick her brain. -S.T.
Q. Were you taught by your parents the importance of manners or did this come to you later in life, perhaps as a young working woman?
A. One learns manners from one's parents from a very early age. I just happened to have had the greatest parents in the worldboth of them known for their kindness and good manners. I certainly saw how much good behavior matters from the time I went away to boarding school, college, and graduate school in Geneva, Switzerland, and the importance of manners in the working world was obvious. Real manners bring a person security, happiness, and, oh yes, success! To me, phoney manners are worse than no manners at allsuch as when a person puts on airs to copy what he or she think is real society. I was so lucky to have parents who made good behavior an absolute priority. Of course, once you've been grounded in the common sense rules of good behavior, it's up to you to either follow them or ignore them.
Q. You earned your bachelor's degree in psychology. When did your interest in behavior shift towards the rules of etiquette?
A. My interest in human behavior never shifted toward the rules of etiquette. I had to know those rules in my diplomatic jobs, but what always interested me more was behavior itselfnot the fancy fripperies of protocol and etiquette. One can closely observe the rules of etiquette and be a mean human being. If a person thinks about others and is kind, then his manners are good. It doesn't matter if he doesn't know how to seat his guests according to protocol or give a proper toast to the guest of honor. He can learn how to do that, but, if he has a bad heart, following etiquette won't help him turn him into a decent human being.
Q. How did you come about working for Clare Booth Luce and what qualities did you most admire about her?
A. My job with Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce at the American Embassy in Rome was the luckiest career break I could have had. She became my mentor and my inspiration. She had entered the world of men of power time and time again, and had always succeeded. She believed an intelligent young woman could do anything, anywhere, if she applied herself and worked, worked, worked at it. She told me, "Anyone can write a book who knows how to apply the seat of the chair to the seat of the pants." (What better advice for a would-be writer?) She was fearless and imaginative while in Congress, while writing her best-selling books and prize-winning plays, while debating famous politicians, while serving as a United States ambassador. Her philosophy was "Never aim low, always higher than you think possible." She passed that on to me, although, let's face it, Clare Luce's high was very, very high, and my low was pretty low!
Q. Can you remember an instance when you wished you had your own etiquette guide in hand? An embarrassing social blunder or a situation that you knew should be handled a certain way but you were unsure how to act?
A. I've committed faux pas after faux pas in my life, because I've always moved too fast and have never developed a talent for patience. In my White House days as chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy, one time I forgot that we had invited an important guest to dinner, who had accepted the Kennedys' with alacrity. On the night of the dinner, she arrived in her ballgown and was told she was not on the dinner list, so she had to go home. You can spend your life apologizing for a mistake like that. I should have been fired, but there was so much going on in the White House, and they needed my services so badly, I escaped. I still shudder every time I think about that night.
Q. What has been the biggest or most outstanding change in manners that you've noticed since you first started writing on the topic?
A. I think the biggest change in manners is that more and more people are growing up today without an awareness of what is good and what is bad behavior. They just don't know, so that when they are rude, even cruel, they are unaware of it. The family structure has been broken apart, and parents don't have the time to teach their children how to think about other people, how to be fair, how to be kind and imaginative in helping other people out. The word "deference" is meaningless today, mainly because dinner table conversation no longer exists, only TV talk. It's a value we have lost.
Q. How do you keep up with American society's ever-changing rules on manners? Do you always have your etiquette radar turned on?
A. I have eyes in the back of my head, and am always looking around me and noticing. I observe how people are behaving in church, how they use their cell phones rudely, and how undisciplined children will seriously affect future social rules. I observe the demise of table manners all over the world in my constant travels. I react to the social changes going at a high speed around us. I was the first writer on manners to come up with the formula for names and titles of the unmarried "live togethers." I was the first writer to address the basic rules of etiquette for gay men and women, and for manners in the workplace.
Q. Do you believe an adult can develop manners later in life if they have not been learned or encouraged in early childhood? What are some basic tips/rules for someone lacking in manners but willing to learn?
A. For someone with an earnest desire to learn good behavior, he should first become very aware of what is going on around him, he should watch others who are eating, greeting, introducing one another gracefully and efficiently, and begin to copy them. He should read and memorize the rules of etiquette in as many books on manners as he can handle (at a certain moment they become boring). Most of all, he and she should read my books!
Q. How does etiquette apply to dating these days? Have the rules for men and women become blurred or are there still different etiquette standards for men and for women?
A. Just as the social mores in this country have been turned upside down in the last sixty years, because of the changing roles of men and women, so have the rules of "polite dating" undergone a revolution. It would take me an entire book to address this subject, but remember that the same rules of consideration, kindness, and thinking about "the other person" should govern couples' relationships and sexual behavior today that were true a hundred and two hundred years agoeven if many people refuse to accept that!
Q. Before the 20th Century, the more well-mannered a person was, the higher up the social ladder that person usually was. I'd like to know if this still applies in our age of instant winners and overnight success stories.
A. Before 1950, the people with good manners tended to be from the rich "old families," or from old families who were no longer rich, thanks to the Depression. Everyone knew who these families were. Whether meriting the title or not, they constituted American society. Today with all the sudden millionaires and the nouveau riches, there simply isn't society any more, unless you want to describe it in terms of the amount of dollars and cents holdings in the stock market. The disappearance of real society is not to be wept over. The disappearance of family values is.
For more on Letitia Baldrige, go to her Web site, www.letitia.com/
For more on the importance of manners, read Sarah Thurmond's thoughts on etiquette and her movie suggestions on the topic.
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