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Miss Manners: Lapses in etiquette can lead to surprising violence

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DEAR MISS MANNERS: How long after a tragedy, such as the shootings in Aurora, Colo., is it appropriate to begin a discussion on the root causes and preventive actions to be taken?

Just as happened in Tucson, time cools the passions until the public forgets about it. This is more important than holding your pinkie out when drinking tea.

GENTLE READER: It seems to Miss Manners that such discussions always begin immediately, often before it is known exactly what happened or who did it. Sense, as well as taste, would suggest that the reaction of shock and sympathy should not be augmented with analyses and cures until the basic facts are established.

But surely what concerns you is that after everyone has voiced already-fixed opinions about gun control and mental health, and agreed that the event is “a wake-up call,” the public dozes off until the next alarm.

Not everybody has forgotten. Not the bereaved, no matter how often they are urged to “move beyond” it. And not those who are professionally or personally dedicated to studying human behavior in the hope of anticipating, if not restraining, its worst manifestations.

What you notice is that a particularly horrific tragedy becomes less the topic of general talk as smaller, yet fresher examples of problematic behavior appear. Then it is most often cited, as you did the Tucson shootings, to show that nothing has changed. The catastrophe to end all catastrophes turns out to have been no more that than was World War I, as had been predicted, “the war to end all wars.”

Yet we keep hoping, and we keep studying behavior and trying to keep it within safe bounds.

Etiquette is a major force in this, you will be amazed to hear. An astonishing number of violent acts develop from transgressions of etiquette. Just the other day, Miss Manners read of a murder that was the eventual result after two strangers traded insults because one of them had broken into a line at the grocery store. Violence on the road not uncommonly follows one car cutting off another. And a typical explanation in gang warfare attempts to justify crime as a legitimate response to being “disrespected.”

Even that perennially easy target, the pinkie in the air, has provocative implications having to do with international commerce and class strife.

The gesture dates from the 17th century, when tea began to be imported to England from China. It was so expensive that those who could afford it kept it locked up in so-called tea caddies. They drank it from Chinese teacups, which do not have handles but are held in the fingers. Because the thin cups transmitted heat from the tea, it was sensible to put as few fingers on them as necessary — hence the escaping little finger, and sometimes the ring and middle fingers as well.

This habit became a symbol of wealth, when few people could afford tea, let alone imported cups. It quickly progressed, along a path you will recognize, to becoming a symbol of pretentiousness. At that point, the pinkie in the air — no longer necessary because the West had developed teacups with handles — became bad manners.

Miss Manners is amazed that it is still cited, now that tea is one of the cheapest possible drinks available. She would be surprised if you had ever actually seen this gesture in real life.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: How long should a grieving widow remain chaste?

GENTLE READER: That is not for Miss Manners to say. However, she does believe that a year is a proper time for a widow to be discreet.

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

2012, by Judith Martin

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