Old-Fashioned Niceties That Deserve a Comeback

Old Fashioned Niceties
Photo: Illustration by Clairice Gifford

Call me nostalgic, but sometimes I just really miss handwritten letters. Long-distance phone calls from a landline. Sing-alongs. You know, old-school things that make people feel connected. And I’m not alone. I talked to friends, writers, and other etiquette experts (some of their thoughts are included here) who also yearn for a return to forms of graciousness, kindness, and attention that have gone by the wayside. It’s stuff we easily can—and should!—do something about. And best of all, you don’t need fancy equipment. Not even your phone. (Especially not your phone.)

01 of 12

Pick Up a Pen.

Old Fashioned Niceties
Illustration by Clairice Gifford

Let’s write more, text less. Research suggests that writing by hand can activate your brain to remember more. And neuroscientist Kelly Lam­bert, Ph.D., the author of Lifting Depres­sion, says that it can make you feel good, too. “The brain’s reward center is connected to one of the movement cen­ters,” she says, “so one way to activate plea­sure is through physical effort.”

02 of 12

Write a Letter. For No Reason.

It doesn’t have to be about anything monumental. And think about the people whose day you could make—parents, an old friend, a child. When my daughter was at camp last summer, I wrote her meandering letters about breakfast, her cat, and this:

The dishwasher broke! I know, it really is Thrillsville around here. And once we started digging around in the clogged filter, we found all kinds of things we didn’t know were missing—silverware and plastic knives and some weird scraper thing that I honestly don’t think was ours to begin with.

She loved getting the letters, but more surprising, I loved writing them—reflecting on the day’s small pleasures and on the happy ache of missing her.

03 of 12

Improve Your Penmanship.

No one will hit you with a ruler if you don’t, but tending to your handwriting shows you care. And as Lesley Blume writes in her Let’s Bring Back book series, penmanship is “an indicator of elegance and individuality.”

Step 1: Get a book. An updated version of the 1866 cursive classic Spencerian Key to Practical Penmanship has fun workbook pages and details about posture. Or, for something a bit more practical, try Write Now, by Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay. It’s a grown-up version of the print handwriting you (maybe) learned as a kid.
Step 2: Practice. Getty and Dubay suggest finding an example of your handwriting that’s your personal best. Identify letters that you want to improve, then practice those, keeping a consistent slope and height. Getty and Dubay also advise against loops, which they feel clutter handwriting. As they say, “Legible handwriting honors the reader.”

04 of 12

Bring Back Personalized Stationery.

It doesn’t have to be two millimeters thick or heavily embossed. Any note with your name at the top “is considered the most personal,” says Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily and the host of the podcast Awesome Etiquette. “It’s the stationery version of your Sunday best.”

05 of 12

Be a Promiscuous Thanker.

Write thank-you notes not just for birthday gifts and homemade-lasagna deliveries but also to let other folks know that you’re grateful for them. Need ideas?

  • Your favorite client or coworker (you know, the person you don’t complain about over dinner every night) for making your life easier.
  • Doctors, nurses, and hospital staff who have made a difference in caring for you or a loved one.
  • Your children’s teachers, caregivers, and coaches for their expertise and devotion.
  • Someone who gave you a gift ages ago that you find yourself treasuring or using constantly. Re-thank that person.
  • Your favorite anybody. That’s right—bona fide fan mail to writers, actors, singers. I love what the writer Carolyn See had to say about this in her book Making a Literary Life: “These notes are like paper airplanes sailing around the world. They say to him or her, ‘Your work is good and admirable! You’re not laboring in a vacuum. There are people out in the world who know what you do and respect it.’ ”
06 of 12

Spend Time With Older People.

This isn’t a priority like it once was. It should be! A study published in Journal of Consumer Research said that as people age, they savor ordinary experiences just as much as over-the-top activities. Which means:

  • Play cards or board games.
  • Do a puzzle.
  • Ask them to teach you: embroidery, Yiddish, how to make their famous Bolognese.
  • Bring an emery board, polish, and remover, and give a manicure.
  • Make a pot of tea, ask questions about their past, and listen.
  • Photographs might help trigger memories.
  • Offer to explain their phone, e-mail, or TV. (Or get your teen to do it.)
  • Sing show tunes together, or put on the radio and invite them to dance.
  • Bonus points for bringing along small children.
07 of 12

Take Care of the Sick.

From kids home with the flu to friends in the hospital, life presents oh-too-many opportunities to tend to people who are ill. Unfortunately, I think we are kind of terrible at it. We’re not sure how to behave, bent over our devices rather than being present. My closest childhood friend died last year, and I spent many long days and nights by her hospice bed. Here’s my simple advice: Take off your coat, put your phone away, and find something to do—leafing through a magazine, knitting, working on a crossword puzzle—that communicates that you’re available to help or chat but don’t need to be entertained. The same rules apply to someone who has lost a loved one. Just show up.

08 of 12

Read Aloud to Your Partner.

More than one person mentioned the sweetness of adults reading to each other, one person closing her eyes and focusing on nothing but the sound of another’s voice and a good story. “I think it’s one of the most underrated pleasures of life. My husband and I used to alternate reading chapters or short stories every night,” says Amy Shearn, author of The Mermaid of Brooklyn. “There’s something so intimate, in this day and age, about sharing media with just one other person, rather than live-tweeting whatever is on Netflix.” Joanna Goddard of cupofjo.com, says that her husband started reading aloud to her at bedtime when she was pregnant with their first child: “I was too sleepy to keep my eyes open. But we’ve continued it because it’s a lovely way to lie close and see what jumps out or resonates with your partner.”

09 of 12

Bring Back the Welcome Wagon.

What started as a 19th-century practice of greeting frontier settlers with food and fresh water became a company (in 1928) that sent representatives to greet new homeowners with coupons. Now it’s (sigh) a direct-mail marketing endeavor. “But going out of your way for someone—dropping off a basket of treats for a new neighbor—is even more appreciated than it used to be,” says Jenny Rosenstrach, the creator of the blog Dinner: A Love Story. “We need those moments of connection more than ever.”

What to bring over

  • Anything homemade (muffins, soup) or goodies from a local bakery.
  • A map with all of your favorite eateries and playgrounds highlighted.
  • A stack of takeout menus.
  • Your name and number. (We’re the stucco house on the corner—twins in front yard!)
10 of 12

Pretend There’s a Phone Cord.

When I talked to friends about nostalgia, the phone cord came up over and over again. Maybe it represents the sanctity of conversation—a kind of groundedness. You were not wandering the frozen-foods aisle. You were on the phone! Talking to your aunt or best friend. So the next time you call someone you love, imagine a cord. Sit down somewhere, talk, and listen—like it’s long distance in the olden days, and it’s expensive, and it matters.

11 of 12

Bring Back Parlor Games! And Sing-Alongs!

Friends + food + booze is already the dinner-party trifecta in my opinion, but old-fashioned games and activities can ratchet up a gathering from fun to one-for-the-books.

Look up “fishbowl.” Just trust me. It’s a hilarious word-and-charades game that requires only paper, pens, and the timer on someone’s phone. Have fun—and then send me a thank-you note.
And the lyrics to Adele. Or Odetta—whatever everyone’s most likely to know. I’m a huge fan of sing-alongs. They fill my heart with joy, even if half of the voices are raggedy and out of tune. Ask friends who play an instrument to bring one. That is, if you’re thinking ahead. Really, the details matter less than the singing itself.

12 of 12

Raise Nice Kids.

If many of us adults have forgotten how to be good company, our kids are doomed might need our help. At the very least, let’s teach them to:

  • Stand to greet people. It’s welcoming, yes, but it also may require them to put down their phones.
  • Treat older people with respect. Use honorifics (Mr., Mrs., Dr.) unless instructed not to; offer a seat on the bus; help with doors and coats.
  • Make conversation with adults, including eye contact (practice this with them), healthy back-and-forth, and good active-listening skills, such as nodding and asking follow-up questions.
  • Be a gracious host. Even if friends are just over to play Minecraft, let the guests choose the activities, offer them refreshments, see them to the door when they leave, and thank them for coming.
  • Be a gracious guest. Ask if you can help set the table or toss the salad; clean up the Lego blocks and watercolors you used; thank your host’s parents for having you.
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