The New Etiquette - Rewriting Manners For a Cyberspace Age

At first glance, the wedding invitation a woman in New York received last week appeared suitably traditional by current standards. In addition to providing all the proper who-what-where-when details, the invitation included a stamped, self-addressed response card - the modern, no-hassle way for guests to send acceptances or regrets.

But on closer reading, the woman discovered a very nontraditional twist: The couple had included their e-mail addresses, allowing guests to RSVP electronically. What makes this e-mail option intriguing as a sign of the times is the groom's pedigree. As the great-grandson of Andrew Carnegie, he comes from a family presumably long on social graces. Yet as the president of a software company, he also knows the convenience and appeal of high-tech communication.

For many time-short Americans, an e-mail RSVP symbolizes progress. But to that staunch arbiter of decorum, Miss Manners, it will undoubtedly signal yet another chink in the weakening armor of a civilized society. In her view, even response cards are "vulgar." In her 1989 "Guide for the Turn of the Millenium," she advises one Gentle Reader to do as she does: "ignore the horrid card" and "answer the invitation properly." "Properly" in this case means nothing less than a formal reply, handwritten in ink on white or ecru stationery, along the lines of: "Mr. and Mrs. Very Proper accept with pleasure the kind invitation of Mr. and Mrs. Goodhost for Saturday, April 23."

While many culture-watchers may feel wistful about a period when a degree of formality still prevailed, they are also realistic about the direction an ever-more casual society is taking. The New Yorker who received the invitation with e-mail addresses takes a pragmatic approach. While she finds it "terrifying to think that people don't know how to respond formally anymore," she concedes that many social changes bring "transitional acceptance." After initial resistance, she explains, "Later you say, 'Now I'm surprised I ever felt that way.' In a couple years we won't think twice about e-mail RSVPs."

Just how fully the Internet is changing mainstream culture became evident in remarks at a computer conference last week made by Hal Abelson, a professor of computer science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "Last year, it was still possible for people to say cyberspace is a different place ... and that there is a Net culture," he said. "Now you have such a large percentage of the population on the Net, it just is not sensible to talk about this as some other place anymore. What you're really talking about now is the communications fabric of the country."

As that "communications fabric" blankets the nation, it will raise other etiquette questions to keep Miss Manners harrumphing well into the next century. For instance: If wedding guests can e-mail their acceptances or regrets, can bridal couples e-mail their thank-you notes? And might the day come when coolly efficient brides will even send invitations electronically? Considering the breezy tone many Internet users adopt, these practices will do little to promote good writing. ("Hi guys! Thanks for the invite! Glad to hear you two are finally tying the knot! Look forward to seeing you on the 23rd! Cheers!")

In any contest that pits practicality against propriety, practicality is increasingly likely to win. Etiquette, like language, must evolve with the times, even if that means certain time-honored customs become as quaintly outdated as lorgnettes and watch fobs. Still, when graciousness is constantly replaced by convenience, small, immeasurable losses occur.

Whether acknowledged or not, the taste for established rules of behavior persists, along with the deeper hunger for order that taste implies. Anybody who doubts this is left to explain why the same generation that e-mails wedding acceptances and dresses down for work has fallen in love with history's most persuasive novelist of manners, Jane Austen.

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