Miss Manners by Judith Martin

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Dear Miss Manners:

At what size table is it appropriate for guests to have conversations with the people sitting next to them, and when should a host/hostess expect that the entire table will participate in one conversation?

I realize that there once were rules for this when dinner tables sat 12 to 24 people, and conversation changed sides with the courses, but with somewhat smaller dinners now, it often seems that guests don't know when or how best to participate. If it is a larger table (say, 10-plus), should guests feel hesitant in initiating conversation with the person next to him/her if there is an active discussion going on among others not so near?

Also, are sex, politics and religion still off-limits in polite dinner conversation?

You know what we call a table of 10 or more people when only one person talks at a time? Not a party -- a seminar. At a social event, six is about the maximum for sustaining a long general conversation.

Now, Miss Manners realizes that there will be times when one person at the table is overheard to say something so fascinating that everyone else stops to listen. Such as, "Mr. Gates was telling me how the economy can be fixed." Or "You'll never guess who I saw coming out of the Roadside Inn together."

Then, indeed, the conversation may be general for a while. But if it goes on too long, you are free to speak quietly to your dinner partner, although not -- unless you are like-minded old friends -- about sex, politics or religion. That is not a quaint prohibition. Such subjects as gay marriage, taxes and abortion have been known to explode otherwise pleasant dinner parties.

Dear Miss Manners:

I have a sister who constantly sends birthday gifts, Christmas gifts, etc., early. By early, I mean, sometimes as much as two months in advance.

I find this rude and odd at the same time. When she's asked why she does this, her answer is so that she does not forget, since she travels so often (she does not have a traveling job).

I personally am just as offended by this as I am by her potentially being late or forgetting entirely. To me, it demonstrates her inconsiderate ways in not caring about the meaning behind a specific important event and or date. How would you propose dealing with this, and, is it "normal"?

It is normal, Miss Manners gathers from far more disgruntled letters than yours, to send presents late. Or to forget to send them at all. Or, as in your case, to quibble instead of being grateful.

Dear Miss Manners:

When I was growing up, my mom would always point out women who were exposing their knees or elbows and mock them. She would say that those are the ugliest parts of the body and ridicule them. As a consequence, I was nearly 30 before I could even sport a tank top.

Though I think my body is fine and proportionate, I am still terribly self-conscious about it, especially my arms, which I think are more fat then the rest of me.

Well, I had to go and marry a lawyer, and there always seems to be a dressy event to attend. We are coming into cocktail-party season, and for years I have tried to avoid them like the plague. You always see women at these events in spaghetti straps or somehow exposing their shoulders and arms. I tend to keep covered in a jacket or cardigan.

I don't want to continue avoiding dressy occasions because of my shame about my body. Is it okay to continue covering up like this at dressy events, or am I calling more attention to myself by doing so? I also refuse to wear shoes that expose my feet too much, but that is a story for another time!

The background is all very interesting, but Miss Manners assures you that things are not so bad that a lady needs a psychological excuse to wear sleeves. Or, for that matter, no-peep shoes. You might do so simply because all those identical slip-dresses and spiky sandals that are not only exposing feet but killing them are getting to be a bore.

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.

2008 Judith Martin

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