THERE ARE three social classes in America: Upper Middle Class, Middle Class, and Lower Middle Class. Miss Manners has never heard of an American owning up to being in any other class.

However, if there is one thing that all Americans agree upon, no matter what their background, it is that the middle class is despicable. The shame of having been born into it is sufficient excuse for a lifelong grudge against one's parents.

This is not a happy state of affairs. This dreadful situation calls for -- MISS MANNERS!

Very well. The problem, in Miss Manners' opinion, is that the classes have traditionally behaved badly -- either oppressively or obsequiously -- to those below or above them. Being in the middle, the middle class has the opportunity to do both. Being a democracy, we extend this opportunity to everyone. One would think, therefore, that an entire middle-class nation would stop despising people on the basis of middle classhood, or that everyone who could make or lose enough money would quickly scurry into one of the other classes.

Let us explain this with a small story. Miss Manners' mother always told her to travel either first or third class, but never second, when crossing. (Not crossing class lines, silly: crossing the Atlantic Ocean, in the days when that was done properly, with bouillon at 11 on the promenade deck and tea at 5 in the salon.)

In first class, in those days, you had luxury; in third class, you had fun. This is the proper distribution of the world's blessings. In second class, you had neither.

Naturally, then someone invented the one-class ship, where the advantages of second class could be enjoyed by all, which is probably why we have those nasty, over-anxious things called airplanes for crossing these days.

You see the problem. Here are Miss Manners' solutions:

First, some people must volunteer to be in the upper class, and others must volunteer to be in the lower class. This is a democracy, so admission will be based solely on ability to pay.

But then, people must behave according to the class they have chosen. We will have no confusion with upperclass people wanting to be earthy, or loved for themselves alone, or lowerclass people coveting status symbols.

Nor will members of any class be allowed to be ashamed of their own class. We have a fine new example of pride in the enthusiasm, over the last few years, of Americans for their racial and ethnic origins. All Miss Manners is asking is that people who now own up proudly to their grandparents be willing to own up to their parents, as well.

The last rule is the most important of all. Miss Manners will not tolerate the classes taunting one another in any way. Not even at recess.


Q: In households where they still observe the custom of waiting for everyone to be served before anyone can start eating, thus making all the people who were served early eat their dinners cold, what are you supposed to do while waiting? Just pretend the food isn't there in front of you and sit with your hands folded, trying not to let your mouth water?

A: Miss Manners senses a negative feeling from you about this custom, which was instituted on the principle that no one should be ready for seconds before everyone has had firsts. The violation of this principle leads to the uneven distribution of food in the world which, in turn, brings on famine, war and other things too unpleasant to mention at the dinner table.

While waiting, you may break open your potato, and even butter it. That is quite enough excitement before dinner.

Q: I have a recipe for serving broiled shrimp with garlic that doesn't say anything about peeling the shrimp before cooking. Can unpeeled shrimp be served at a luncheon? How do people peel them? Do I provide a dish for the peelings? How are you supposed to eat this dish. ?

A: You are supposed to eat this dish while sitting in a Spanish cafe, sipping sherry. Peeling the shrimp is half the fun. You grab each shrimp by its wee little legs, tugging to pull them all off as an unpleasant child would pull the wings from a fly. You then dig the thin shell away from the shrimp and eat the shrimp. Then you find that the shrimp is so delicious that you attempt to catch a waiter's eye to reorder. In the 45 minutes before the new order comes, your eyes and fingers gradually wander toward the shrimp shells, which smell of garlic. Surreptitiously, you slip a shell into your mouth. The shell tastes like fingernail parings, but the garlic is so good that you eat the remaining shells. You then crumple your napkin on top of your plate so the waiter won't look around to see what became of the shrimp shells.

As you can see, all of this is such an adventure that you could hardly conduct a decent luncheon party while it was going on. Miss Manners suggests you save this recipe for the privacy of your family.

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blueblack ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of The Washington Post .