SURELY WE are all agreed that children cannot begin too young to learn manners. Miss Manners does not any longer expect an argument.
There used to be parents who believed that a child should be allowed to develop naturally, with no artificial standards of ehavior imposed on his or her innocent instincts, but we have all had a gander at the results of that. A child who is able to express his true feelings without the restraints of convention is a menace to society, and Miss Manners trusts that no one will deliberately attempt to rear such a creature in the future.
That decided, when do we begin to torture the baby?
The first formal social occasion in a person's life is generally the call that friends pay on him and his mother whe they return from the hospital (Miss Manners has heard of those who attempt to make an earlier social occasion out of the birth, recounting or even filming it for the benefit of those who could not attend, but considers this to be on a taste level with publicizing the conception).
The round of visits to newly enlarged families can be charming if the baby understands the rules. Some allowances are made for error on account of the baby's youth and inexperience, but an ambitious baby will try not to count on excessive indulgence outside of the immediate family. However, new parents can be of great assistance in displaying the baby to his best advantage.
This does not include pretending to speak or write for the baby. Parents should never issue birth announcements or write letters of thanks that pretend to be coming directly from the baby; they should write in their own names on behalf of the baby. Speaking for someone else is a vile practice that the baby will resent increasingly over the years.
One thing they can do is to schedule visiting so that the baby's less desirable functions can be accomplished privately. Friends of the family customarily telephone as soon as they hear of the birth and ask when they may be permitted to visit, a request that should not be refused. Recent child-birth is no excuse for either participant to avoid entertaining a constant stream of visitors. But hours may be suggested by the parents so that the baby has a decent chance of freshening up between onslaughts.
Unlike other members of the family, the newborn baby is permitted to sleep while visitors are present, and even to have a meal without offering whatever he is enjoying to everyone else present. But he must be made to understand that his social obligation is to allow the visitors to satisfy their curiosity as to his looks. For example, if he wishes to sleep on his stomach, he should turn his head towards the room so that he presents a three-quarter view of his face.
A child who is less than a month old is not expected to produce social smiles, but nor should he produce anything else with his mouth, such as food or excessive noise.
He should expect to be passed around to visitors, and should remember to bring some protective covering with him. Wetting or otherwise inconveniencing well-wishers is not a good way to begin a social caree.
He should never show a negative reaction to a compliment or a present. Crying in response to an innocent remark or shifting one's head when a new bonnet is placed there are both bad form. A baby who receives, say, a silver toothbrush with his initials on it should never volunteer tha he has one already or that he has no teeth.
And parents who think of these visits as occasions for encouraging their children to cater to the comforts of guests, rather than the other way around, will be getting their children off to a good beginning.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q: Ihave an unlisted telephone number because I live alone and hate being bothered by calls when I am apt to be in the bathtub or watching a television program. If it is someone I really want to hear from, I do give out the number. But I resent it when people expect me to tell them my telephone number as a matter of course. Can I just make up a number and give it to them?
A: At the other end of that made-up number lives a person who is lying in the bathtub, watching television, and not eager to hear from your acquaintances. When people ask you for your telephone number, write down your address.
Q: How about asking your readers to make suggestions to substitute something else for the neutral "Ms." since that is the abbreviation for manuscript?
A: Miss Manners considers it rather a triumph to be neutral without being neuter, and has no wish to replace "Ms." She wishes to point out that "Mrs." is the abbreviation for "mistress," and yet people seem to be able to make the distinction.
Q: When I was a young man, I worked for a very distinguished book puboisher, designing and managing the production of his books. To be sure that everyone knew he was distinguished, this publisher addressed all his male correspondents as Joe Doe, Esq., rather than Mr. Joe Doe. I am rather fond of this quaint English custom, but notice that it has now gone out of fashion, except for expensive lawyers who call themselves Esq. on their stationery. That strikes me as silly. But I like to use this form of address on envelopes of letters I write. Does that make me seem affected and conspicuous?
A If you understood the true English usuage of "esquire," you would indeed seem affected and conspicuous, as no two Englishmen seem to agree on this. It has to do with legal designations of younger sons of peers, eldest sons of knights, crown officers and so on. Some American lawyers, who adore such tangles, have jumped in and appropriated it for themselves, which is quite selfish considering how many American lawyers are women. In England, "esquire" is used widely and indiscriminately these days, and Miss Manners advises Americans to let them have it.
Q: I have read that it is improper to introduce the maid to one's friends, even if the friends are staying over-night and need to know her name. I read that you perform a half-introduction, such as "Mary will look after your needs; Mr. Brown will be here two nights." I feel funny about this. I don't want to do the wrong thing in front of a friend, but yet I don't want to embarrass my maid, either, or do anything that is undignified towards anyone.
A: People who are lucky enough to have servants should realize how comparatively easy it is to find a good friend. Miss Manners' inclination, therefore, is to worry about the dignity of the employe before the dignity of the friend. Unless the employe is committed to the old-fashioned method you describe, Miss Manners would prefer that you perform a decent introduction, which includes providing everyone with a last name, as well as a first: "Horace, this is Mary Jewel; Mary, this is Mr. Brown, who will be occupying the Queen's Bedroom."
Q: How should "thank you" cards -- the good white ones that usually have "thank you" in gold script on the front -- be properly used?
A: Over Miss Manners' dead body. If you can't tkae the trouble to write out the words "thank you" yourself, you do not deserve to have anything for which to thank anyone.
A: I want to be fair and reasonable, but there are some things I can't get used to about the "new manners." Specifically, I am embarrassed when a woman I am lunching with grabs the check. Some of them do this quite aggressively. I am talking about business lunches, of course, although the way things are going, this may well spread to social occasions. My company is perfectly willing to pay for any business lunches I consider necessary, and my lunch partner does me no favo by making a show of paying for me herself. What is the woman's real objective here -- to prove she's my equal? Is it really worth it to embarrass me?
A: Oh, yes. No doubt, you have been embarrassed in the past by lunching with women who gave orders to the waiter instead of to you, who got snippy about where your hands were, or otherwise behaved in ways that you decided were unfitting. Miss Manners does not consider the embarrassment of dictatoial gentlemen to be proper motivation for feminine behavior. And she assures you that the colloquial expression to the countrary, you will not die of embarrassment.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white wrting paper) to Miss Manners, in care of The Washington Post .