To the Manners Born

Emily Post’s work of teaching etiquette continues into the fifth generation

by Phyl Newbeck

emily-post-leadAs CEO of the board of directors of The Emily Post Institute, Peter Post guides the legacy of the work begun by his ancestor, Emily Post, into the fifth generation of Posts.

In this age of text messaging and Snapchat, is etiquette a thing of the past? Not so, according to Peter Post of The Emily Post Institute in Burlington. “We have to recognize that things have changed,” he says “but we can still help guide behavior both by determining what is acceptable and also by seeing what society now has as norms and reflecting that in our advice.”

As an example, Peter points to the change in business attire from formal to casual. “My job is not to say you have to be formal,” he says “but that you have to show respect for whatever the dress code is and have clothes that are neat, clean, and reasonable for the conduct of business.”

The Post family has been dispensing advice for almost a century. In 1922 Emily Price Post published Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage. In 1929, she launched her syndicated column, “Good Taste Today,” which appeared in 150 newspapers, and soon she was receiving over 5,000 letters each week. The next year, she started a radio show, and in 1946 she founded The Emily Post Institute.

After Emily’s death, her granddaughter-in-law Elizabeth Lindley Post became the spokesperson for the institute and wrote revisions of the original book. Elizabeth also wrote an etiquette book for children and hosted a radio program with her husband. When she retired, her daughter-in-law Peggy Grayson Post became the new face of the institute.

Fast-forward to 1995 when Peter Post and his three siblings were told by their parents that it was time to transfer the family business to the next generation. “Then came the question of what do we do with it,” Peter recalls. “Do we want to continue as a business or does it slowly fade away?”

The siblings commissioned a brand study and learned that the family name was well known although most respondents thought Emily Post was alive and well and perhaps 10 years older than they were. The family decided to continue the business and to branch out into the area of business etiquette.

Peggy was busy with both the general and wedding etiquette part of the organization so the family tapped Peter to co-author, with her, a book on business etiquette in 1999.

Despite the Post name, Peter didn’t initially set out to be part of the family business. Born in Bogota, Colombia, he grew up in Rye, New York. After earning a degree in art history from the University of Pennsylvania and a master of fine arts from Pratt University, he and his wife, Tricia, packed their bags in 1974 and moved to Vermont.

He and Tricia, who had known each other since their early teens spending summers on Martha’s Vineyard, had reconnected as students at the University of Pennsylvania, and were married in 1973. Peter had family in Vermont, and had skied here over the years. “I always wanted to live here,” he says.

He taught art at Pine Ridge School in Williston tutoring learning-disabled children and teaching art, worked as a reporter/photographer at the Valley Voice in Middlebury, had a temporary position teaching art at Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol, and spent five years as director of communications and publications at Champlain College before opening PostScript, his Burlington advertising agency.

He had run PostScript for 15 years when the business book was released and he began working at the institute full time. He was more than willing to try something new.

For a time, the Emily Post Institute was run by a triumvirate of Peggy, Peter, and Peter’s sister, Cindy Post Senning. Roughly four years ago, Cindy stepped back from the business and Peggy began to withdraw, as well, leaving Peter in charge. He shunned the title of president, preferring to refer to himself as the managing director. “Everyone’s involved,” he says. “The operating method is to bring everyone to the same place to move forward as a group.”

Since January, the fifth generation of Posts is at the helm, with Peter’s daughter Lizzie and his nephew Daniel Post Senning sharing the title of co-president. Lizzie has a degree in art education from The University of Vermont while Dan studied molecular biology and then worked in contemporary dance in California.

Lizzie was the first of the two to join the family business. During her junior year of college her father asked her to write a book on college-age etiquette. She worked on it during the summer between her junior and senior years and the summer after graduation. She spent a year in retail sales in Burlington but when the book was published, she was hired by the institute.

She started her career by booking travel, answering email questions, and doing support work and then moved on to writing columns and working on a new line of Emily Post videos.

Dan says he surprised family members when he returned to Vermont after 12 years in California, although doing so had always been part of his plan. “I always thought this was something I’d do later in life,” he says.

Dan started out doing administrative work but as the business etiquette portion of the company grew, his duties increased. “It was one of the most fortuitous decisions I ever made,” he says. He took one of the company’s business etiquette courses as a way to learn more about how things were done, and he is now the primary spokesperson for the business training seminars.

Although he and Lizzie share many duties, Dan is in charge of the website while Lizzie writes the script for their NPR podcast as well as columns for Women’s Running magazine, Good Housekeeping and Houzz.com. Both are involved in writing the 19th edition of Emily Post’s original book with the 20th edition planned for the 100th anniversary of the inaugural book in 2022.

Peter boils etiquette down to one simple refrain: “Etiquette helps you say I’m sorry less often. We try to live it; not just teach it.” The Emily Post Institute employs six people, four of whom are Post family members. Since Dan and Lizzie have taken the helm, Peter’s title is CEO of the board of directors, a body that also includes Dan, Lizzie, and his siblings, Allen, Bill, and Cindy, as he tries to slowly step back from the organization.

“My real role,” Peter says “is to help them manage the business, give counsel, and help them understand the financials.” In addition, he has become more involved in editing the videos that are becoming a bigger part of the business. “It would be great to have a sixth generation,” Peter says. “Right now, they’re all small children but it would be great if they could continue. There aren’t a lot of businesses that have been around for five generations, and I’m not sure we can continue it without a family member.”

Peter is impressed by how the Emily Post Institute has successfully evolved over time. He was surprised when his 2003 book on men’s manners became a best seller, but credits that to the fact that rather than just tell people what to do, he tells them why they should be doing something. “Of all the things I’ve done in the etiquette advice business,” he says “what I’ve stayed true to is the importance of emphasizing the ‘why’ behind something. If I can’t come up with a reason for saying something, I shouldn’t be saying it.”

Emily Krump at Harper Collins has been impressed by the way Peter has helped the Institute evolve. “I believe that his success and his ability to adapt to the changing landscape — particularly with the advent of social media — ties back to his talent for really listening,” she says. “Every business is faced with road blocks or challenges. Peter knows how to absorb a situation and collaborate with his team and the people around him to find workable solutions. The result has been an Emily Post Institute that nimbly tackles the social issues that are the core of their business.”

Katherine Cowles of the Cowles-Ryan Literary Agency has similar praise, noting that the Emily Post Institute has changed with the times with the creation of e-books and e-learning seminars. “Their innovations continue in a rich social media presence, sophisticated e-commerce, and the evolution of etiquette in a wired world,” she says.

To Peter, the most significant lesson Emily imparted was her understanding of the importance of building relationships. “People would feel comfortable with her in a short period of time,” he says “and that’s the skill that etiquette is all about. It’s a way to connect with people. It’s not about the rules as much as how to build relationships and having the tools to do that. We are social animals. We like to be liked, and etiquette helps you be liked.”

These days, Peter works part time at the institute, spending a month in Tuscany, winters in Vero Beach, Florida, and summers practicing his golf game from his home in Charlotte. But he still enjoys his work in the office.

“Every day I get paid to help people enjoy their lives more,” he says. “That’s a pretty good life. When people read these books it helps them, and that’s fun. How many people get to do that?” •