QUICK: What are the correct answers to the following questions?
1) "It was so nice of you to ask us for the weekend. We can't, but you know who would just love to? Woody's first wife is getting married this summer, so she can't take the kids, and frankly Woody and I have got to be alone now - I don't count Alexandrina-Victoria; she's only 2 - if we're going to salvage anything. Anyway, his kids are big now, you'd be surprised, and they're dying to come down and spend some time there. They won't be any trouble because they'll bring their own sleeping bags and I told them they have to get summer jobs, and when they do, I'm sure they'll want to get their own place. They're great kids; you'll love them; and they think this is so great of you. Okay?"
2) "My twins are in your son's class and we're asking all the mothers to help out. It's about the school dance. They need a strobe light a new amplifier, and the school simply will not supply them, and we thought of asking the kids to pitch in but some of them are, you know, uh, well, scholarship students and it might not be fair to ask them, if you know what I mean. Anyway, we decided to have a raffle, and each mother just has to sell 20 tickets so it's not much work for anyone. You could sell them around your neighborhood in no time, or some people who can't be bothered are just buying them all themselves. Okay?"
3) "Are you and Buckley free for dinner three weeks from Wednesday? Marvelous - we have some darling friends you'll just love. When they heard you were a tax lawyer, they were just thrilled, because they have some kind of terrible tax situation they'd love to ask you about, and of course everyone is dying to meet Buckley. We're counting on his putting in a good word for us on this secret project we'll tell you all about at dinner. Is 7:30 all right?"
Notice that Miss Manners has asked for correct answers. She can hear all those answers that sprang to your minds, through inspiration, assertiveness training or self-defense, and they are not correct answers.
What is more, they are not answers that many people would say to firends or acquaintances. It's all very well to talk about the need for saying "no"; but the real need in the lives of civilized people is to say, "No, thank you."
Because of this lack, people who refuse to be rude - and bless them for that - find themselves answering either, "Well, we'd love to, but we think Kimberly might be getting appendicitis then and there's been an electrical fire in our family room and I find my time is so limited now that I have to keep reporting to my probation officer," or, what is worse, they answer, "Yes."
The correct answers are simple. All they require to be both gracious and effective is that one close one's mouth after saying them and not continue talking.
The correct answer to any of the initial question is: "Oh, I'm so terribly sorry, I just can't." Got that? In most cases, that is enough. However, if anyone asks why not, the correct answer is: "Because I'm afraid it's just impossible."
The sentences are not difficult to pronounce, but many people find the silence following them impossible to accomplish. They fill it by running off at the mouth with increasingly complicated and far-fetched excuses until the only hope of wiping out all their dreadful lies is to turn themselves in and do what was asked of them.
They would do well to practice shutting up. It is a social grace few can afford to be without.
In the meantime, Miss Manners has an exercise for intermediate students. They may say, "I have to check with my husband (wife, broker, boss, dog's babysitter, house plants)" and then call back later and try again to give the correct answer.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q: I read in a newspaper story that Mrs. Jacob Javits, the wife of the New York senator, was at a White House dinner and used her evening purse as a doggie bag! It said that she wanted to bring some of the fancy dessert, a marron mousse with chocolate trimmings, home to a friend who had read about the dessert beforehand and wanted to taste it but wasn't invited to the party. I've heard of doggie bags at restaurants, but at the White House? Apparently she told everyone what she was doing and cooly put the dessert in her purse. Would you like to comment on her manners?
A: No. A person who has put a marron mousse into an evening has suffered enough.
Q: We are having a lot of work done in the house, and I feel funny sitting there eating meals while the painters and electricians are working nearby. I'm not saying that I'm willing to cook for them, and anyway, the ones that are there all day bring their own lunch pails. But I can be having my lunch, sometimes with a friend who's stopped by, and we're at the table while the men who are doing over the kitchen are standing around, and I feel as if I ought to ask them a cup of coffee. I don't really want to, as lunchtime is when I do my reading if I'm alone and if I have a visitor I'd rather talk to her, but doesn't it seem snobbish not to ask them to join us?
A: It would be snobbish to ask them to join you. Such an invitation presumes that you believe that you, whose walls are peeling and whose wiring is a mess, who doesn't even have a functional kitchen, are the social equal of honest laborers.
Q: I know that mourning customs have almost disappeared, but I have seen black-bordered stationery in a store, and I wonder if I should get it for my mother to answer our condolence notes with. (My father recently died.) She has put off writing them at all, saying she doesn't feel up to it, but it seems to me unkind to people, many of whom wrote very nice letters about my father, just to leave their condolences unacknowledged or answered by an impersonal card. What would you advise? May mother says she is too depressed, but would probably do what I insisted on.
A: Miss Manners urges you to insist on the proprieties, not for Miss Manners' sake, but for your mother's. Funeral rituals are associated with all civilizations because they serve the purpose of forcing the bereaved to participate, in a dignified way, in the land of the living. Your mother has obigations to those who have shown, through their letters, that they, too, were to some extent bereaved by your father's death. The widow is in a unique position to assure people that they were esteemed by her husband and should not grudge that comfort to anyone affected by his death.
As for the writing paper, Miss Manners thinks a narrow black border an excellent way of signaling that this is not frivolous correspondence.
Q: We are about to give a very large family party, celebrating my grandparents' 60th anniversary. All ages will be there. We have ordered a huge cake representing, in icing, various milestones of their lives. My question may seem silly to you, but I know from experience at my children's birthday parties that it will come up.
It is, who gets the fancy decorations on the cake when the cake is distributed to be eaten? Whenever my children have parties, I try to see that there are enough icing roses or whatever so that every child gets one, because otherwise there are a lot of hurt feelings. At a party this size, it's not possible. But I bet all the children and maybe even some of the adults are going to say they want this figure or that. Should I (I'm acting as hostess) just say, "No, they go to Grams and Gramps because it's their day?" and then pile all the trimmings on their plates?
A: Yes, if you want to save yourself the trouble of celebrating their 61st anniversary. Those things taste dreadful. Miss Manners approves of serving them as food to children because are hardy sorts and this is a perfect way of teaching them beautiful things they see will turn out to be disgusting inside. However, if your grandparents have not yet learned this, they may squeak by without having to. If Miss Manners were serving this cake, she would not entertain any special orders, but would smile blandly at all requests, perhaps answering, if pressed, "It's all white meat." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Charles Dana Gibson