Q: Recently, a particularly pugnacious friend, Lise, and I got into a debate over the proper title for one of her relatives. A few years ago, Lise's mother died and after a year, Lise's father remarried. My friend and I both agree that her father's new wife is her stepmother. However, I say her stepmother's mother is now her stepgrandmother. Lise denies this, since her original maternal grandmother is still alive.
Lise claims as long as her real grandmother is alive, she cannot have a stepgrandmother. I say that Lise is selfish and crass to insist on her original grandmother's death before she can have a stepgrandmother. Please tell us who is correct so we can cease our petty bickering.
A: Be gentle with your friend Lise. Coming from a home in which steps are engaged only for positions that are already vacated, she does not have the modern child's understanding of the complications of step relationships and the possibilities for exploitation that they represent. If she did, she wouldn't dream of turning down an application for the position of grandmother.
The number of stepparents one may have is limited only by the activities of the original parents. They are additions, rather than replacements, to the original relatives. Lie would, no doubt, properly recognize that her mother, although deceased, remains her mother. She is certainly entitled to a maternal stepgrandmother, in addition to her maternal grandmother. A child who has both parents re-married can easily collect eight grandparents and the corresponding birthday presents.
Q: It seems that whenever I have just oppped a bite of food in my mouth, I am asked the title of my master's thesis or my views on women's liberation -- nothing, in short, that I can get out of with a simple nod of the head.
What is the correct response in this situation? Must I force my questioner to wait until I've chewed and swallowed that bite? If it was almost completely chewed, can I stash that last morsel in a spare cheek and answer -- provided the answer is short? Any choice seems rude, but as more and more business is conducted over meals, this is becoming a real problem. When I am dining with someone I wish to impress, my boss for instance, I take small bites just in case.
One last request: Why the ancient taboo against elbows on the table? Although I wouldn't dream of it, I'm curious as to how the custom originated. Does it become acceptable if the dishes are cleared and you are chatting over your last cup of coffee?
A: In today's hectic world, one is often faced with a choice, at business lunches or dinners, of losing the opportunity to make a statement or losing one's unfinished plate to an impatient waiter. Small bites and cheek-stashing are, indeed, two legitimate solutions.
Another is to develop a facial expression that, without opening the busy mouth, suggests that wonderful words are about to come out of it, well worth the waiting. The eyes brighten, the lips smile knowingly, and a hand is raised slightly. If you practice this expression before a mirror, you will find that you can develop it into something mesmerizing that will buy you the time to swallow your food in silence.
Elbows are banned during eating because of the awkard, crane-like motion it gives to the hand on the other end of the elbow, trying to get down to table level for food. Also, it is a delightfully easy error to catch in children, whose other errors may be more subtle. Some laxity is permitted when the elbow-owner is not eating, as in the situation you describe.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of the Washington Post.