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The Lowdown On Downloading

By Judith Martin
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page C10

Dear Miss Manners:

What is the proper response to a person who asks why I don't download illegal copies of software or music?

The only thing I can think of is "I don't steal," which, while true, sounds awfully blunt. I work at a computer company, and this question comes up rather often.

"I don't steal" is harsh because it indicates that your questioners do steal. Obviously they do, but unless you plan to make a citizen's arrest, you will antagonize them to no purpose.

Miss Manners suggests asking (with a wide-eyed look of shock), "But don't you know that's illegal?"

Obviously, they do, but you have given them a chance to slink away. They may prefer to march ahead, saying that doesn't matter. But you will not have accused them of stealing; they will have confessed to it.

Dear Miss Manners:

My mother has informed me that she has always believed that if a person gives you negative advice about something you plan to do ("I saw that, did that, went there, etc., and I didn't like it because . . . ") and you go ahead and do it anyway, you are being rude to that person.

This probably explains why my mother and I have been at odds for 50 years.

I responded that I thought the world was full of people who offered unsolicited advice, much of it contradictory, but that grown-ups have to make their own decisions and take the responsibility for them. If I considered myself under a social obligation to follow other people's unsolicited negative advice out of fear of offending them, I'd never do anything.

Surely, I said, sensible people do not take it personally when someone goes ahead with plans in spite of unsolicited advice.

But my mother insisted that this was very offensive, and if someone does me the kindness of offering advice, the only polite thing would be for me to follow it. I have never before heard this etiquette rule, and I'd like your opinion on it.

Miss Manners has a rule forbidding amateurs to make up etiquette rules. Furthermore, she will make the irritating claim that it is for their own good.

Amateurs inevitably fabricate rules that are to their own immediate advantage, never considering that their circumstances are likely to change, and that once a rule became a rule, it could be used against them. You should hear the outraged squeals of people who, after going around for years claiming that nobody has to answer wedding invitations, finally issue their own, only to have them ignored.

What your mother also doesn't realize is that for her, circumstances have already changed. Parents can issue rules to the minor children under their jurisdiction without having to conform to the rules themselves. This is known as "Because I'm your mother and I say so." That is not the way to teach etiquette, but it works for curfews, chores and other such rules that cannot be turned back on the ruler.

However, if you have been at odds with your mother for 50 years, Miss Manners is guessing that this situation expired long ago.

You are free now to say, "Is that so? You must obey everyone's advice? So I could advise you to stop advising me, and you'd have to obey?"

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

©2005, Judith Martin

© 2005 The Washington Post Company