IT USED TO BE the custom for ladies to gather in a corner of the drawing room to speak, in hushed tones, of the Servant Problem. Now that they can shout it from house to house without any danger of being overheard by servants, the fun is gone.

What pleasure there used to be in comparing the gaucheries and debaucheries of the lower orders, as observed at closer range by those who >See MANNERS, K9, Col.3 > >MANNERS, From K1 > could only stand and be waited upon. It was a fine time, too, for ladies of Miss Manners' profession, who wrote exquisite essays on the three daily costume changes required of the parlor maid, and sly, hypocritical reassurances to the hostess who attempted to feed eight people with only a cook and a waitress to help.

It wasn't that the Servant Problem went away; just that the servants did. The reason for this was that it had never really been a Servant Problem so much as an Employer Problem. Hushed tones or no, the servants found out from the employers' attitude, to say nothing of their wages, hours and demands, that they could serve their own best interests elswhere.

One can say that the servants served the employers right. Human dignity is better served when each individual is able to be self-sufficient, which includes both earning one's bread and making the sandwich.

However, it is not practical for everyone to do each and every task of daily life. The hope remains that someone else will perform the services you cannot personally manage - for love or money.

Fewer people are willing to do it for love these days. They found they were running into the same problems as the servants - lack of appreciationm ready money, time off and job security.

Miss Manners would like to resolve this unfortunate situation, because she has always wanted to write about the correct attire for footmen. Her revolutionary suggestion is that service jobs be treated as being as important as we say they are when people perform them for themselves.

A woman who keeps her own house clean is considered to be a model for others. A person who cooks for his or her friends is thought of as warm and creative. A father who spends time caring for his children is deemed a paragon.

Why then, are people who clean, cook or care for children professionally at the bottom of the vocational ladder?

Let Miss Manners review briefly for prospective employers of servants what a decent job is. It is, at most, a five-day, 40-hour week, with overtime pay for time over. It has vacations, sick leave and a pay scale providing increases for merit, experience and cost of living. One should also be able to earn respect, which means using one's own judgment about managing the assigned tasks, and not being accused of stealing every time something has been misplaced.

The principles apply to hiring a part-time cleaning woman every other week, as well as to running a household full of servants. It is the only way to solve the Employer Problem. And the only way Miss Manners will ever be able to plunge into that exciting argument about whether the butler should stand behind the host, or the hostess, at dinner.

Q: Is it polite to eavesdrop? I was at lunch at a famous restaurant, where there were a lot of celebrities, and was fascinated to hear what was going on but my mother, who was with me, said it was very rude. Surely these people expect to be noticed, or they wouldn't eat there.

A: Miss Manners deals in manners, rather than morals, and the answer is that it is highly impolite to be observed to eavesdrop. This is rude not only to the people whose conversation you are overhearing, but especially to your own companion, in this case your mother, whose conversation is thus pegged as being less interesting than that at other tables. As for listening to what is going on, that, of course, is what such restaurants are for. Until you learn to smile and nod at your mother while picking up gossip from three tables away, you do not deserve to be taken there.