WHAT DO you do?" is what Washingtonians say instead of "How do you do?" when they meet people, as Miss Manners has often observed. It is sort of the grown-up version of that snappy opener at college mixers, "What are you majoring in?"
Miss Manners feels that there are worse ways to begin sizing up new people than by their occupations. Those who object to being "defined" by what they do for a living may well be asked exactly how they propose to "define" themselves in a simple sentence following a handshake. One may not have had complete freedom of choice about one's job, but it had to involve more choice than one has about one's birth or family, which is what other societies use to begin sizing people up.
However, Miss Manners has been hearing from people who find this question offensive and want to know how to head it off or to cut it off with a smart, but unimformative, reply. As it happens, these people are never cabinet ministers or television talk show hosts, or even people who are paid to perform useful functions; they are people who are not highly remunerated for what they do, however important it may be.
Specifically, they are housewives and writers who work at home. Miss Manners considers both of these respectable occupations and doesn't think people who purse them should feel touchy when questioned by people who work in offices. But they do. For instance, people who work in their own homes are always complaining that those who interrupt them with visits or telephone calls or coffee invitations are indicating that they don't take their work seriously. People who work in office adore being interrupted.
Miss Manners feels that anyone doing honest work should be able to say so without apology. But to those who insist on evading the question, she can offer three ways of answering, none of them involving fancying up one's job title to make it sound officey. No "household techniclans," please.
At most, one can make the job one does seem more in demand. "I'm tyring to finish up a book due two years ago" sounds better than "I'm trying to write a novel," except, of course, to one's publisher.
It is much better to interpret the question as meaning "What do you do when you have the choice?" There is nothing to stop one from replying "I assist reluctant sky divers" or "I am a bird-feeder" or whatever one prefers to do.
However, if the motive is to achieve status with a questioner who smugly holds a glamorous position, one must switch the value system. Instead of accepting the idea that occupation is the basis of status, supply an answer in terms of money or social class."
"I have to manage the family property" or "I'm cataloguing my library" are examples of honest answers that should do it.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q: I am taking my grandchildren to the Easter Egg Rolling at the White House on Monday, but they have asked me what egg rolling involves, and I don't know. Also, do we bring our own eggs?
A: Rolling must be interpreted in its political, rather than gravitational, sense, as in "log rolling." In other words, you had better look out for your own interests and bring your own eggs to feed your own family. Do you think this government hands out jelly beans?
Q: What is the correct way, these days, to answer a formal, engraved invitation?
A: WHat do you mean, "these days"? Are you suggesting that just because modern life is chaotic, you can get away without a beautifully handwritten formal reply with all the lines neatly centered? Do you know how much it cost those people to have that invitation engraved? Do you think they want to hear your cheery voice on the telephone saying, "Sure, why not?"
Oh, all right, Miss Manners will shorten the task for you slightly, but not much. You may write that you accept with pleasure, or regret that you are unable to accept, your friends' kind invitation for whatever date it is - and you don't have to repeat in the reply the time, place or bride's name. You still have to write the thing out, though. And get those lines centered!
Q: Who should get out of an elevator first?
A: The person nearest the doors. Provided, of course, it is his or her floor.
Q: My son and I disagree on using you knife to push your food on your fork I say it is not correct, and he says it is permissible. Please settle this for me.
A: In the American style of eating, one cuts one's food, parks one's knife, transfers one's fork to one's right hand turning it right side up, and scoops up one's food by the sole use of the fork. In the case of some foods, this can lead to quite a merry chase about the plate. In the European style, one keeps one's fork upside down in one's left hand and uses the knife in one's right hand to pack the food onto the back of the fork. If you and your son are of different nationalities, you may both be right. Or you may both be wrong.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white letter paper) to Miss Manners, Style Section, The Washington Post .