VALENTINE'S DAY is Miss Manners' favorite holiday, for reasons having to do with red satin, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, if not diamond trinkets roguishly hidden. But this Valentine's week, Miss Manners has to report that romantic love is in a perfectly dreadful state.
Many people think that this is because there is too little of it around. Actually, there is much too much, what with otherwise respectable people trying to "relate" to one another and straining to love all their fellow creatures, or at least those in their group.
But the chief problem with moders romantic love is not in the heart at all; it is in that deepest of human emotions, the sense of what is proper.
That is what is confused now. Old conventions having been upset, and new ones not universally accepted, people who do not understand the rules and limits of others are offending one another even more than is already necessary in the ordinary course of ove.
Let us discuss this in terms of a highway. (This will be a simple metaphor. Miss Manners promises not to say that life is a highway, leading nowhere, but with an occasional comfort station along the way.)
We all agree that each vehicle will start, accelerate, cruise, slow down and, eventually, stop. If everyone knows the speed limit, and it is monitored by an outside force (probably one hiding behind a billboard), everyone will have a good sense of where everyone else is, even though some may choose to travel faster than others.
Suppose, however, there is no agreed-upon speed limit, and everyone is allowed to go at the rate that makes him feel comforable. Some will travel enormously fast and some very slow, and when they get anywhere near one another, there are going to be serious accidents.
Miss Manners trusts that she need not belabor this ingenious metaphor. Her mail is full of the outrage of ladies who wish to go at a slower pace than their gentlemen friends, the outrage of gentlemen to whom the pace of their lady friends is maddeningly slow, and, these being modern times, of versas to both vices.
Miss Manners' suggestion to all is that they first adopt a moderate rate of speed. Joy riders will admit if they are honest, that missing the scenery and bypaths robs the journey of its pleasure; and the slowest will have noticed that they had better step on it, in this age of speed, if they are to get there at all.
Then, Miss Manners warns everyone to recognize that there are no clearly marked signals just now on this dangerous road, and to be careful and tolerate those proceeding at a different rate from one's own.
And now you'll just have to excuse Miss Manners, who is going to pull off the side of the road and rest until this pesky metaphor goes away.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q: When passing along a row of seated people, at the theater for instance, or in church, how many times is it necessary to say "excuse me" as you work your way to your seat?
A: Once for each person passed, plus one "Oh, dear, I am so sorry!" for each person stepped on.
Q: I like to bring gifts of food anyone who has invited me over for an evening, but I am often looked at with dismay by a hostess who seems to assume that she has to serve whatever I brought, right away. I really mean her to keep it for herself later. Are there any rules about what it is okay to bring, and what not?
A: It is necessary that the food itself agree with your intention of its being enjoyed by the hostess after her guests have left. This means that it must be something that does not require any immediate attention on her part. Food that is leaking, sizzling or mooing when presented is out.
Q: A waiter in a fancy restaurant tried to push my chair in for me, and nearly catapulted me into the sharp edge of the table. Not many men perform this service any more, which is probably just as well for the hospitalization insurance rates, but what does a woman do if they attempt it?
A: There is a confusion here between the performance of a courtesy and the performance of a useful function, and Miss Manners is not surprised that the result of so basic a misunderstanding may be fractured kneecaps.
The proper procedure for a man pushing in the chair of a woman has nothing whatever to do with moving her chair physically. It goes as follows: She approaches the chair. He puts a hand on the back of the chair. She sits on the chair. She scoots along toward the table, surreptitiously dragging the chair with her by means of her own hand, placed stealthily behind her knees to grip the front of the chair seat.
The gentleman allows his hand to move along with the back of the chair as she scuttles toward the table. She then turns and gives him a half-smile to acknowledge her indebtedness for his contribution to her comfort.
Q: Do you have to accept a cigar when it's offered by a new father in honor of his baby? I don't smoke, but I don't want to be a wet blanket, either.
A: The one virtue of the cigar, an otherwise unredeemable institution, is that it is portable. Accepting one does not constitute a commitment to smoking it. Give it to the first new baby you meet.
Q: In my short, fruitful career as a single girl, I have had innumerable one-night stands, but never a two- or even three-night stand. My young men had not even the grace to tell me not to wait for their calls. What is the proper procedure in such a process of rejection? Please advise.
A: Miss Manners is afraid that you do not understand the meaning of the ritual you claim to have practiced. The nightstand, whether it is of the one-, two- or three- variety, does not, by its very nature, require social continuity. You are confusing it with an entirely different social tradition called courtship. Miss Manners cannot find your young men remiss, provided that they met the basic requirements of the nightstand act.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blueblack ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of The Washington Post .