Oh Behave!

The Post family offers an expert guide to etiquette for the cultivated Dartmouth alum.

What does it take these days to be a polite and well-mannered Dartmouth alum?

To find out, we contacted the modern-day etiquette gurus at the Emily Post Institute. We consulted five of the doyenne’s descendants: Peggy Post (Emily's great-granddaughter-in-law), Peter Post (her great-grandson) and three of her great-great-grandchildren, Anna Post, Lizzie Post and Daniel Post Senning. No matter what the social situation, they’ve got you covered.

Reunions: Long Time No See!
“So, how’ve you been?” is a daunting question to answer when you can’t even remember the last time you saw the person asking it. Almost everyone’s life story has a few sticky wickets—an illness, a divorce, a layoff—and talking about them can be tricky. Even if your life has been wildly successful, providing every glowing detail (i.e., “As the president once said to me…”) may not endear you to your old friend.

Remember, how much you share is entirely up to you, says Lizzie. “Even winning the lottery might be a story you don’t want to tell.” Think about your audience. As Peter’s father used to say, “Dogs, children and grandchildren: Either people have them or they don’t.” Don’t carry on and on about how yours are.

Present your difficulties in a general way, says Peter, and then flip it to focus on the future. For example, “The recession has been difficult, but we’re working hard to build the company,” or “I’ve had a rough patch with the divorce, but I’ve learned so much and come out of it a lot stronger.” And whether your story is difficult to tell or not, don’t forget that catching up is a two-way street. “The best thing we can do in conversation is ask people about themselves,” says Peter. Above all, says Dan, honesty is the best policy. “If you tell the truth you never have to remember anything.”

Old Flames, Old Enemies
Reunions are not the time to rehash or dissect the who-did-what-wrong of a long-past relationship or feud, says Anna. When you see someone who makes you uncomfortable, a brief hello and a nod—delivered with a smile on your face—is the mature and respectful way to go. There’s no need to engage in a full-blown fake friendly conversation or to go out of your way to bump into someone you would rather not see.

If your current partner and an old flame are sharing space for the first time, you may want to reassure your significant other that the past is the past, says Lizzie. “If you’re single, be cognizant that your old flame may have a new flame,” she adds. “Don’t try to weasel your way in.” Peggy advocates for honesty, but in the benevolent—not the brutal—way. Leave it at, “I’m happily married,” without adding, “to someone who treats me way better than you ever did.” And you may be pleasantly surprised at the transformative power of time. “A lot of people report after reunions that someone they weren’t fond of is now someone they like quite a bit,” adds Peggy.

Relive, Don’t Re-Drink, Your Glory Days
Alcohol is often free flowing at reunions, and with so many friends around it’s easy to throw back more than a few. Anna sums it up in three words: “Know. Your. Limit.” Not only are you a guest of the College, but reunions are a time for professional networking. “If you look like you walked straight out of Animal House, it might not reflect as well on you now as it did back in the day,” says Lizzie. Plus those who once held your hair back and made sure you got home safely may be less interested in doing so today. “Just because you’re in familiar environments doesn’t mean you have the same tolerance and social support you had when you were 21 or 22,” says Dan. “You can relive your glory days without re-drinking your glory days,” adds Anna.

There are also new considerations you may not have faced in college: Whether for religious, personal or medical reasons, many alums no longer drink at all. Playfully egging on your buddies to pound the beers could be more unwelcome than you realize. “Respect where people are in their lives now, and that drinking may no longer be part of the picture,” says Peter. There are also children to consider, whether your own or other people’s. Be extremely careful when drinking with current students: If they’re underage and there’s any kind of incident, you could be in a world of trouble. “You don’t want to be there when the cops are called and you’re the only adult in the room,” says Lizzie. “Legality first!”

Dealing with Fundraising Phone Calls
To answer or not to answer? It’s completely up to you, say the Posts. “You give because you can give, but your situation may be that you can’t,” says Peter. “They’re doing an ask, and you have the right to say yes or no. I’d rather pick up and stop the calls from coming.”

“When you are financially able,” agrees Lizzie, “it’s a considerate thing to donate to your school, but it’s up to you what you do with your money.” What you shouldn’t do, she says, is answer the phone and berate the caller. “Be straightforward with these folks,” says Anna. “Let them know your plans and it’ll save you both aggravation.” For example, “I donated in June, and I plan to do so again around the end of the year. Call me then.”

If you decline, do so politely, says Dan. “You can always tell the caller your preferred method to give and ask them to contact you in those ways.” Another perfectly acceptable response: “I’m sorry I’m not able to donate at this time.”

How (Not) to Complain
Regardless of whether you’re taking up a grievance with the College president or writing a letter to your alumni magazine or even just having a conversation, the Posts agree: Be professional, respectful and focus on the facts. The written word gives you a record of the communication and a chance to show your thoughtfulness. But remember it can also be passed around—especially in e-mail. Never write an angry letter. If you’re that upset, write the letter and hang on to it, says Peggy. Don’t send it until you’ve had a chance to cool off.

Think of the issue as a concern, rather than a complaint, says Lizzie. “A complaint is generally going to put you in the mindset of whining and demanding and talking about unfairness,” she says. “What you really want to get at is, ‘I’m concerned about this for these reasons and I hope that bringing this to light will encourage you to see my point of view.’ ”

Complain about the issue and not about the person, says Peter. “The minute you make it personal, people’s backs go up against the wall and they want to get out of the situation.” Be practical and don’t lose sight of your goal, says Dan. “The important thing is not being heard, but getting the problem fixed. Tell people about the problem in a way that allows them to fix it.”

Networking with Fellow Alums
Don’t simply assume that because you both went to Dartmouth you’re automatic chums, but reaching out to a fellow alum in a letter or e-mail is perfectly acceptable—if you do it properly.

“Networking is a process,” says Peter, “not a single moment in time where you make an ask.” It’s best to begin to build relationships before you need something. Don’t, Anna says, place too much burden on a complete stranger. Asking for a job in the first e-mail is unlikely to endear you. If you’re clearly wheeling and dealing to get something from them, it will be obvious and likely offensive. A good opening line might be, “I would love to chat with you about what you do in your line of work.” Some people will be willing to help you and others won’t. If you suggest a short phone call and someone declines, do back off, Peggy advises. “Always, always, always be appreciative,” she says.

If someone reaches out to you and you’re not interested, the gentle decline is perfectly mannerly. You might instead offer the name of a more appropriate or helpful contact. Stuck for words? Lizzie offers a template turndown: “Thank you so much for getting in touch. I read your letter and appreciate that you looked to me. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to commit to helping you, but best of luck.”

Heckling at Sports Events
Sporting events are one of the rare occasions when you get a dispensation to behave badly, say the Posts, as long as it’s the right kind of bad behavior. “Trash talking can be totally appropriate,” says Dan, “as long as it doesn’t distract from the game itself or isn’t vitriolic to the point where it’s harming people. Awkward, painful, hurtful comments are not okay.” And don’t forget that our actions reflect on us 24/7, says Peter. “What if I’m with my classmates yelling and screaming and making fools of ourselves, but a few rows away sits my new client with whom I’m meeting next week? I’m going to walk into his office and he’s going to think, ‘What an idiot.’” Remember also that the censors aren’t poised to bleep you out. “Polls about politeness and rudeness in our society show that one of the things people dislike the most is foul language,” says Peggy, “especially in front of children—and there are going to be children at sporting events.”

Campaigning for Your Child’s Admission
The folks in McNutt Hall will know your child is a legacy applicant: It’s right there on the application. But, the Posts say, it’s perfectly appropriate for you to voice additional support for your child or for a close family friend whose connection to you would not otherwise be obvious. The key is to make sure you don’t harm his or her chances in the process, so don’t be pushy, says Peggy. Writing a letter or e-mail is appropriate, but phone calls to the admissions office are frowned upon. Peter suggests you write to let the College know about the application and why you think this candidate is excellent for admission. “Do not say, ‘I’d like you to enroll this student as a favor to me,’ ” he says.

Dealing With Your Child’s Professors and Friends
The Posts are unanimous in how to deal with your child’s professors: Don’t. “College teaches kids to deal with their own problems,” says Lizzie. “Coach your kid if they ask for your advice, but don’t be the one who calls up the professor.” Adds Dan: “You’re not helping by continuing to facilitate their relationships.” Dan’s thoughts on helicopter parents: “Time to cut the cord.” Be available, but not intrusive. Give your kid space to use the values you taught him or her. “Respect a child who says, ‘Okay, Mom, time to get out of here,’” says Anna. “Listen for those cues.” When it comes to your child’s friends, show them the respect you’d show any other adult. “My parents treated my friends like people and, as a result, my friends loved to come over to the house,” says Peter. “You’re modeling for them positive adult conversation where people are interested in each other.”

Julie Sloane is a writer and editor. She lives in Philadelphia.

For more on the Emily Post Institute, click here.


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