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Rewriting the Rules, IMHO

Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page D02

Considering how sympathetic Miss Manners is to educators and employers who bemoan the demise of formal writing, you would think they could return the support.

Their complaint is no longer simply that students and employees fail to recognize a distinction between the way they talk and the language they should use in writing academic papers or business letters and reports. Now the writing habits associated with e-mail have begun to show up in what is supposed to pass for serious writing.

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Rules are violated, either because nobody knows what they are or because nobody cares. Spontaneity and cuteness are thought to trump organization and correctness. Most significantly, the idea that there should be different styles for different purposes is considered bizarre and not quite honest.

Miss Manners is only too familiar with these attitudes. But where are the educators and employers when she encounters just these kinds of troubles in respect to the behavior of everyday life?

Those in charge were not instigators in flouting and ridiculing the rules of etiquette, extolling feelings over skills and generally condemning formality. But neither did they put up effective resistance when those notions were promulgated. It is now rare to find a classroom or an office where people dress differently than they do when at leisure, use forms of address different than those used for their friends, or admit that their behavior should be different from when they are off duty.

What is more, the leaders didn't just tolerate the change, they reveled in it. Professors began to enjoy being called by their first names, as if they were of student age themselves. Bosses bragged about their egalitarianism, which was demonstrated by dress, not by salary.

By now, there are many in positions of authority who grew up under the rule of relentless informality. Reinforced by a social ethos of "being themselves" -- as if we had a choice of who to be -- they are of a generation that is largely unaware that it is possible to handle more than one style without being fraudulent or satirical. Those who request anything formal, notably for weddings, are likely to encounter some indignant resistance.

But educated people know about different styles of using spoken and written language. They keep trying to make the point that a highly informal style that is fine for e-mail is offensive when used for a business letter or, for that matter, that words that are common in the locker room should not be repeated in the postgame television interview.

To get that point across, it will be necessary to reassert the respectability of formality. Because this gives rise to various forms of hysteria, notably denunciations of elitism and totalitarianism, it is necessary to point out that formality is not necessarily rigid or expensive. Certainly not compared with the compulsory casual style.

Reassurance is needed that it is only to be used on certain occasions -- although that makes it necessary to exercise the judgment to know which occasions.

Okay, the high school prom. But what else?

Dear Miss Manners:

My friend went to a wedding one month ago and has yet to give the couple a gift. She fully intends to (intended to?), but that is beside the point.

She received an e-mail from the groom that read, "Did I send you our address? We have a nice little thank-you note waiting with your lovely name on it, but nothing to write in it yet."

My friend is mortified that he would have the nerve to ask her the whereabouts of his wedding present. How should she respond?

Miss Manners is always gratified to hear of those who write prompt thank-you letters, if less enthralled when these turn out to be extortion notes. But as the gentleman seems to appreciate them, she suggests your friend send him one. It could say, "Thank you for thinking of me," after which you can call it quits.

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


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