Engaging a world where social networks trump old societal traditions

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

He wants to marry my daughter.

He called to ask if he could drop by for a few minutes. I scooted into the kitchen to greet him just as he burst through the back door. Flushed from the brisk cold, he rubbed his hands together, saying he wanted to talk to me about something.

His hands quieted. His voice was steady.

“I love your daughter very much,” he began. “I cannot imagine my life without her.”

The rest of his words melted, muted by his bright eyes so full of future and mine so full of joy. I remember nodding yes, and crying, and hugging — and oh yes, finally shutting my mouth.

He wants to marry my daughter!

He talked to her father, then came to see me. I wondered if he would. Divorced for more than 10 years, our complex family life spanned two households — although closely intertwined by design.

What is the proper etiquette when the nontraditional family configuration meets a well-mannered young man intent on doing the right thing?

He asked all of three of us — dad, mom and stepmom. We all gave him our blessing.

Days later, a thoughtfully orchestrated engagement unfolded as planned. On an early morning run, he had faked an injury and then popped the question, returning to my home where we had an engagement brunch with his family and ours.

Then the notifications began — phone calls, text messages, e-mails, Facebook.

“I already knew,” one of my friends confessed. Her daughter had read my daughter’s Facebook status and texted her before I had a chance to call.

My social network had been eclipsed by theirs. So much for my plans for sharing the news.

It would not be the only time, however, that traditions were challenged.

“Never congratulate the bride,” my son was instructed by another family member. “Always say, ‘Best wishes.’ “

And a generational debate began with dueling cross-generational BlackBerry searches that finally revealed the origins of that particular practice.

“You congratulate the groom, but you wish the bride happiness,” Emily Post wrote in her now classic book, Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage. “It is a breach of good manners to congratulate a bride on having secured a husband.”

Granted, the original book was first published in 1922. But many still respect Emily Post as the authority on etiquette. (Even Peggy Post acknowledges the timeless wisdom of her great-grandmother-in-law as she keeps the legendary name prominently placed in each current publication.)

Hannah Rodewald, owner of stationer The Pleasure of Your Company and in the wedding business for more 30 years, says she has seen traditional etiquette move to more contemporary adaptations.

“What were once rigid rules are now more like guidelines,” she said. “Most want to know the rules, but choose to keep it relevant to their lifestyles.”

Yet, the questions remain: Who to ask? How to tell? What to say?

Maybe the answers are not black and white anymore. But in today’s need-for-speed pace, perhaps these rules can provide a social speed bump, allowing us to think before we act. At our best, most of us are like my future son-in-law — intent on doing the right thing.

As Emily Post once said, “Good manners reflect something from inside, an innate sense of consideration for others and respect for self.”

Consideration and respect. Let’s hope the pursuit of those will always be relevant to our lifestyle.