IN A SOCIETY that considers "How do you feel about your divorce?" to be a conventional conversation opener, what, Miss Manners wonders, is a personal question?
There is a bizarre notion that it is both charming and beneficial to force a person to yield, for general consumption, everything there is to know about himself. The interrogators are thus able, while indulging their base nosiness, to maintain a complacent air, that is part compassionate glow and part scientific inquirey.
Yet, widespread as the practice is, Miss Manners knows that those questioned feel neither charmed nor benefited. The are always asking her for ways to "put down" their tormentors.
Now, you know that Miss Manners does not believe in snappy comebacks designed to make other people feel terrible no matter how richly they deserve it. She certainly does not keep a warehouse of them, with something appropriate for each occasion.
She believes that the way to answer any question that intrudes on one's privacy is, "I'd rather not talk about that, if you don't mind," "I'm afraid that's too personal for me to discuss."
These may be accompanied by anything from a plesant, regretful smile, suggesting that this policy will change when you know each other better, to a raised-eyebrow stare, suggesting that you had better not try again.
The question remains, however, of what a personal question is. In certain groups, it is acceptable to ask one's age -- say, in the 4-to-6-year-old group. In other groups, it is common to ask the price of a newly purchased home -- say, in the $35,000-to-$125,000 range.
Nevertheless, these are never general rules, and the fastidious person, will refrain from ever inquiring about age or money. It's too tricky. Suppose you asked a 5-year-old what his parents had paid for their house, or the purchaser of an $89,000 townhouse how old she was.
Let us assemble, then, a beginner's sampler of personal questions to be avoided in all beginning, and probalby also intermediate, relationships:
AGE--"That was an awfully nice young man you brought over the other night, but tell me, isn't he a little young?"
BIRTH CONTROL -- "Isn't this your third? Did you plan it that way?"
CHILDREN -- "Shouldn't he be talking by now?"
DIVORCE--"And we thought you were the ideal couple. What went wrong?"
ENERGY -- "Don't you think you keep this house too hot?"
FOOD -- "I'm surprised to see you eating that -- didn't you tell me you were on a diet?"
GOOD WORKS -- "Oour development officer has figured out what a person of your income level can afford to give -- would you like to hear what it is?"
HEALTH -- "Your didn't tell us what that test was you went in the hospital for -- but let me just ask this. Was it benign?"
I -- "I think you ought to . . ."
Wait a minute. That's ehough of this alphabet stuff. The "I" is already a slightly different form of nosiness than the personal question. And you know what happens when you keep going with this sort to thing: You get to X, and the you have to try to make xylophones seem relevant.
They aren't. It's permisible to ask a perfect stranger about a xylophone. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q: A female at work informed me, when I showed her a cologne I had purchased, which she liked, that when a gentleman enters a room, his cologne shouldn't be smelled until after he has departed. This I did not know -- if, indeed there is any truth in it. I myself, as a young man, 21, believe in looking sharp at all times. But never to overdo anything which includes the amount of cologne one should wear. Please help me out in this mind-twisting matter.
A: No, no: The rule is that a gentleman's cologne (or a lady's perfume) should never precede him into a room. It does not follow that it should remain behind when he is gone. Perhaps it would be less confusing to say that a gentleman's cologne should never occupy a room that the gentleman is not occupying.