What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation


The Washington Post Columnist and Etiquette Professional Steven Petrow

I Tweet Photos of People in Flip Flops On Planes

Photo by Trish Badger.

May 24, 2017

Steven Petrow is a journalist, writing The Washington Post’s “Civilities” column, and an etiquette professional whose work helps people navigate an ever-changing and evolving social landscape. Before joining a panel discussion for a Zócalo/Smithsonian “What It Means to Be American” event at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston titled, “Do We Still Know How to Be Good Citizens?” he talked in the Green Room about chocolate, divorce and his fairy-god bunny.

Q: If Emily Post were brought to life, and you could ask one question, what would it be?
A: Emily Post lives through her heirs. I often call the Emily Post Institute to talk through issues. But the question I have for her: What was it like for her to be a divorcee in the early 20th century, as a woman from a very prominent family? I can’t even imagine what it was like for her. My interest comes from the fact that I’m going through a divorce now—a same-sex marriage divorce.

Q: How would you describe the etiquette of appearing on cable news networks, as you often do?
A: There is no etiquette on cable news these days, which is why their ratings are so high and the level of discourse is so low.

Q: What superpower would you most like to have?
A: I already have one superpower at home. I have a fairy god bunny. When I was 26, I was diagnosed with cancer and a friend gave me this bunny that was part male and part female. It can cure diseases and solve social problems. When friends of mine have challenges, I loan them— I’m using the gender-neutral “them” to refer to the bunny—to my friends.

Q: What dessert do you find impossible to resist?
A: Chocolate, chocolate and chocolate.

Q: Where and when did you learn how to swim?
A: Even though I grew up on the beach on Long Island, my parents sent me for swimming lessons at this little lake, and they would throw you into the water, and you would sink or swim. Since then I have hated swimming in lakes and I love swimming in the ocean.

Q: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
A: I have multiple levels of pet peeves. On the low end are people on planes who wear flip flops. I often take pictures of their feet and tweet them. My biggest pet peeve, on the highest level, is entitlement. That’s more than a pet peeve, of course—it’s a cultural ill.

Q: What teacher or professor changed your life, if any?
A: When I was an undergraduate at Duke, Wallace Fowlie, a French literature professor. In my senior year, I took his Proust course, and we read Proust in French for the entire year. That teacher just opened my mind in so many ways, especially to the world of travel and reading, and the importance of learning other languages and other customs. And then early in my career, when people in job interviews asked what have you read, I would say I’ve read Proust in French, A-Z.

Q: On what device do you do most of your writing?
A: A MacBook Air. I take it everywhere with me.

Q: For you, what does it mean to be American?
A: What it means to be American is to share a set of common values. And at different points in our history, we’ve seen real fractures when that commonality has been shattered. And we’re in one of those times now, and it makes it very challenging for us to understand nationhood and national identity.