PEOPLE KEEP trying to entice Miss Manners to play Gotcha! It is a nasty game, and Miss Manners wants nothing to do with it.
Gotcha! has a particularly sneaky opening move. The player sidles up to Miss Manners, or to a surrogate Miss Manners among his acquaintance, and says innocently, "Tell me, my dear Miss Manners, what do you think of such and such behavior? Is that considered impolite? Would you even say it was rude?"
There follows an example of the most horrendously bad behavior, with no possible ambiguity. "Is it polite for the bride's family to sit down and eat the wedding supper while the groom's family is unable to find any place to sit?" "Would you consider it in bad taste to wear a bikini to the grocery store?"
Poor Miss Manners is forced to agree, and the questioner smiles quietly and says only, "I thought it might be, but I'm glad to have your opinion."
Miss Manners has now learned to recognize that sly smile, and knows when she sees it that she has been trapped, once again, in a game of Gotcha! The rest of the game is that the questioner goes running back to the wrongdoer, armed with the awesome authority of Miss Manners, and endeavors to carry out his true purpose, which was to make someone feel just terrible.
Mind you, Miss Manners is not one of those who say, as do all the other etiquette authorities of our age (Edwardian etiquette authorities brooked no nonsense and had the courage of their convictions) that the purpose of etiquette is to make other people feel comfortable. Miss Manners is wise enough to understand the value of occasionally making others, and even oneself, feel uncomfortable. The pleasure of formal social rituals is in everyone's feeling unusually uncomfortable, and one use of impeccable politeness is to direct it at rude people, thus poisoning their satisfaction with discomfort.
However, the purpose of Gotcha! is to create unproductive discomfort in others. Miss Manners' unwitting aid in this unpleasant procedure is obtained fraudulently. The story Miss Manners was told always turns out to have been deliberately constructed so as to leave out all mitigating circumstances that might have swung the case to the other side.
It turns out that the bridegroom's family remained unseated because they refused all places except those properly belonging to the parents of the bride. The grocery store that was visited by a bikini wearer turns out to be next to a nude beach.
Gotcha! creates gratuitous discomfort because it concerns itself with a situation that is already past. If the wedding had been planned wrong, it is of no use now to tell the bride's parents; they are not going to do it all over again, right?
Or, as in the case of the bikini, it involves something that is of no proper concern to the Gotcha! player. The bikini-wearer has not, you may be sure, inquired of the Gotcha! player what would be appropriate attire.
Miss Manners hereby declares the entire game of Gotcha! to be rude. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q: What do you think is the proper place, at a funeral, of the deceased's widow who has been faithfully married to him for nearly 18 years? Do you think she should be shunted aside by his grown-up children by a first unfortunate marriage, and an ex-wife who was never really a wife to him? Is it their place to sit in the front pew and carry on, while the widow has to sit by herself, all alone? Also, is it proper for the first wife to keep using his name, from a marriage that was over so many years ago, when he left a real widow?
A: See above.
Q: I am a divorcee with two small children. I would occasionally like to have a friend spend the night, but the one time I tried it, the children asked all kinds of rude questions at the breakfast table in front of him, and while I don't want to lie to my children, I didn't want to embarrass my friend, either. I don't like to tell the children they can't talk freely, and I'm not sure they would shut up even if I did. Am I failing in my duty to my children if I insist on their being polite to a guest?
A: Your duty to your children is to teach them the basic fact of life, which is that everyone occasionally does things that he or she does not wish to explain.
Q: Does it matter what you wear to a funeral? I hardly ever see anyone wearing black any more, except possibly the widow.
A: Dark clothes should be worn to a funeral, although most people cherish the mistaken notion that the deceased would prefer them to be casual and comfortable, rather than to make a special effort on his behalf. However, there is such a thing as ostentatious mourning. A mysterious woman who shows up at a funeral more droopily festooned in black than the widow is making what is known as a "fashion statement."
Q: What do you think about people who ask you, on the telephone, "Who is calling?" before telling you if the person you asked for is there?
A: Miss Manners thinks that they are mouthing your name at a person who is wildly shaking his head and hands at the very mention of it. The same purpose can be accomplished politely by asking the question after expressing doubt: "Let me see if he is in. Who may I say is calling, please?"
Q: Suppose I'm talking to someone I'm supposed to know, but I can't remember his name. Another person joins us. Can I get them to tell each other their names?
A: Certainly, who would be in a better position to know what they are? If you know the name of one of them, you can address the other with a firm statement, "This is Hollister Stranger," and then adjust your shoe, thus removing yourself from view and leaving the field clear for the unknown to complete the introduction. If you know neither name, it is wise to remove yourself from the scene entirely, after saying brightly, "I'm sure you two know each other!"
Q: I received a calling card in the mail from someone I only met twice, and it has "P.p.c." written in the corner. What on earth does that mean, and what am I supposed to do about it?
A: It means, "Pour prendre conge," which is French for "So long," and you don't have to do anything about it because the person who sent it has skipped town.
Q: Isn't the purpose of a debutante party to present a young girl to society? I've always heard that the custom is disappearing, and surely there are no young girls left who haven't been around before they are debutante age. And yet I keep reading about such events still taking place. Why?
A: You have a slight misunderstanding there. The custom of the debut is not disappearing, but the debutante occasionally does.