IF JUDGEMENT DAY were schelduled for tomorrow, the question most people would be worrying about today would be, "Can I bring a date?"
The kaleidoscopic state of love these days has left everyone uncertain about who goes with whom, including, sometimes, the parties concerned.
As always, it is the innocent who suffer most from these couplings and uncouplings. Miss Manners is referring, of course, to hosts and hostesses.
If you invite an impossible person for the sake of getting his marvelous spouse, you will be informed that he will come, but not she. If you have formally captured the perfect mate for a lonely friend, that friend will insist that he bring someone of his own choice along.
There are roommates who hate being invited together, because it should be obvious that they are trying to lead their own lives, and roommates who are furious about being invited individually, because it should be obvious that they are inseparable.
People who try to get a specified number of people to their dinner tables in alternating genders will soon want to drown themselves in their centerpieces. There are times when Miss Manners despairs of any form of social life except opening one's home like a disco, admitting people with whomever they bring, and simply cutting things off at the door when it gets too crowded.
Let us try, however to salvage a semblence of orders by defining what is a social unit of two and what is not.
The most likely couple is the one that is engaged. But they must be engaged in the sense of having chosen a wedding date, not in the sense of not knowing how else to explain themselves to their parents. Engaged couples must be invited together, but the reward is that they nearly always appear together.
Less certain is the married, couple. While they must be invited together, they must, if necessary, be accepted singly. It is considered very offensive, for instance not to urge a woman to attend by herself, just because her husband is out of town. One also may find that the couple has separated or divorced since last seen the previous week. In that case, the one who answers the invitation is the one who is urged to attend -- alone.
People who are living together as lovers, whatever their genders, are generally offended if not invited together. However, it is up to them to make themselves known as a social unit, as in, "Oh Perry and I always go out as a couple."
The most grateful of all to be invited together are illicit lovers, and the more dangerous the situation, the more thrilled they are to be treated conventionally. You may not want to countenence such relationships, but if you do so, even perhaps providing a cover excused, they'll cherish you as do no other guests.
The least grateful are the single people involved only in transitory alliances, who nevertheless will not trust your ability to provide entertaining company, but insists on bringing their own dates. They should be discouraged. cWith all the couples one has to allow for, the least single people can do is to appear singly.
Otherwise, they will have no one but themselves to blame when they come around whining that they have such a hard time meeting anyone new.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q: I have recently received an horary doctorate and am especially pleased about it as I have had no formal higher education, and so this is my first degree. However, it seems to be show-offy to use the title of "doctor" under these curcumstances. Many of the doctors of philosophy I know don't even use theirs. Yet what good does the title do me if nobody knows about it?
A: You are in the position of a woman who has invested in silk underwear. She must derive her satisfaction from knowing that she has it on, and perhaps the knowledge of an intimate or two. But to let everyone know cheapens the effect.
However (to drop the underwear), you might look out for the chance to ally yourself with the doctors of philosophy who do not use the title by telling those we do: I would never dream of calling myself 'doctor' -- after all, I'm not a physician."
Q: I have a good friend in high school who is from another country. She speaks English fluently. Another girl came up to us who is foreign and also speaks English, and they began talking in their language, I was left out in the cold. My mother says I should tell them to speak English. What should I say?
A: Try asking them pleasantly, "What does that mean?" everytime they say two words. This will double the amount of time it takes them to say anything, and may encourage them to realize that it would be simpler for them to speak English. If not, it will give you the opportunity to learn their language, so it will be time well spent.
Q: Could you elaborate on family etiquette regarding family meals? Who serves? Who is served first? What is served first? Also, who is served secord, etc., when the family is alone, and when the family has one or two guests?
A: in a simple, family-style meal, consisting of perhaps six people -- a grandparent, two parents, two children and a guest -- it is possible to combine four different ranking systems, so that everyone gets his just desserts except, of course, children who don't deserve them.
The systems are: blood, age, gender and ability.
The privilege of serving dinner should go to the adult (age) in the family (blood) who is mostly likely to get the food divided and transferred from platter to plate without its lingering along the way on the tablecloth (ability).
The first portion goes to the oldest (age) unrelated (blood) female (gender). Within the family, adult women are served by generation (first Grandmamma, then Mamma), and then adult men by generation (Grandpapa after Mamma but before Papa). (As one of these people is likely to be doing the serving, that person is removed entirely from the order of precedence. Serving oneself last not only looks modest, but gives one a clean place in which to work.)
The youngest generation should be served last, by the same rules, begining with unrelated females, and so on. However, many adults have noticed the advantage, in large family gatherings, of serving children first and then "excusing" them from the table. Ability is an important factor in children's ranking, as a person who lacks the ability to restrain his walling when he sees food on the table but not in front of him, is likely to find that he has rapidly passed the entire ranking system. There is an unfortunate moral in that.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blueblack ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of The Washington Post