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Much Ado About Nothing

By Judith Martin
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page C12

Dear Miss Manners:

I work at a college and, as on many campuses, we have here a large number of sweet young virgins who dress like a certain pop star, blissfully unaware that she dresses like an Amsterdam prostitute. Often I am uncomfortable in their presence, especially when we have to work in close quarters.

Recently at a social event, a very nice young lady asked to have her picture taken with me, and she rather fondly put her arm around me, with her hand on my shoulder.

What am I supposed to do with my hands?

Had she been dressed decently, I could have put my arm around her waist or on her shoulder, but there was nothing but bare skin there. About the only spots that were covered were her breasts and her bottom, but, thinking as fast as I could, I concluded that those might be unwelcome locations. The only other alternative that came to mind was to stand stiffly, like a wooden cigar-store Indian in the Old West.

What is a gentleman supposed to do in such a circumstance? No man here would dare to admit to discomfort in the presence of our young ladies in their currently fashionable state of undress -- the consequences would fall upon us.

And those are nothing compared to the consequences if you appear to be thrilled, rather than shocked. Your having refrained from touching certain areas, even though they were clothed, tells Miss Manners that you have grasped that.

You assumed the correct pose. Awkwardness can be explained away as being camera-shy. The assumption of phony intimacy -- presuming you are not otherwise in the habit of throwing your arms around this young lady -- can be harder to explain.

Dear Miss Manners:

I work for a public official, and a significant part of my job is responding to letters from our constituents. Increasingly, the office receives letters from people with names that could belong either to a man or woman, or said persons write only their first initial.

Is there a title that is not gender specific? Given that these responses are professional in nature, how should I address letter-writers when I cannot tell their gender from the letter?

You wouldn't consider writing these letters by hand, would you? Or even writing just the salutation by hand?

Because Miss Manners could tell you how to write a lowercase letter that could be either an "s" or an "r," so that following an uppercase "m," it could be interpreted as either "Ms." or "Mr."

Others solve the problem by writing "Dear Voter" or "Dear Fellow Citizen," apparently unaware that this ensures that the letter will not be read, or by using the first name or initial only, apparently unaware how many people this antagonizes.

The remaining solution is to begin with "Dear Mr. or Ms. . . ." Using a clumsy phrase is less offensive than guessing wrong about the writer's gender.

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