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Miss Manners: The smile police

Wednesday, March 24, 2010; C05

Dear Miss Manners:

What is the correct response when people tell me to smile? I am not at a photographer's studio or where photos are being taken. I'm just going about my business.

The other evening at a social function, I was waiting for my husband to bring the car to the door. An acquaintance was getting her coat at the coat check. We exchanged some pleasantries when out of the blue she told me to smile.

I told her it really annoys me when people say that to me. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, we bid each other goodnight.

This request to smile has happened to me more than once. I am a reserved person and not one who goes around grinning from ear to ear. I'm not sad or mad. I'm just me.

How should I handle this request? Am I obligated to give them a big toothy smile? Was I rude to my acquaintance? Do I owe her an apology? I am perplexed by this command.

It is indeed both common and rude to command others to smile, as if this conferred a favor by improving their outlook on life.

Miss Manners was once told this by a stranger on an airplane, although she was dressed in black from head to toe, on her way to attend a funeral. Later she regretted that she had restrained herself from bursting into tears.

Still, your chastising the offender was rude. You could have conveyed the point politely by asking, "Why? Did you say something amusing?"

Dear Miss Manners:

How would you deal with a tour guide who is prejudiced against Americans? Our trip to Great Britain was great fun, except for an English tour guide who never ceased to berate our group for all the ills of the world (LOL, including Mrs. Wallis Simpson from years back).

The group as a whole just held their collective breaths whenever near her, kept a low profile and endeavored not to be rude. Afterward, there was a discussion as to how to defuse the situation without pushing the offending party off the bus. Any suggestions for next time?

Americans are so tolerant of national criticism that Miss Manners doesn't know whether to commend our good nature or deplore our lack of pride. It is not rude to object to your country's being insulted.

But she certainly admires the nerve of a British tour guide berating America to American clients. Wallis Simpson! If the guide wanted to discuss royal scandals, Miss Manners can think of a lot more recent ones that the British conducted without any help from us.

One way to handle this would be to take it as teasing and start mentioning those scandals, and perhaps other embarrassments in British history, such as losing at war with the United States. Another would be to say stiffly, "We respect your country, and we would appreciate it if you would return the courtesy."

Dear Miss Manners:

Is there a time limit after which one should not offer an apology for fear of raising a hopefully long-forgotten ugly experience back into the mind of the one offended?

Miss Manners has news for you: They remember. And no, there is no statute of limitations absolving you of apologizing. You just have to do so more abjectly.

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.

2010 Judith Martin

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