Q. Two things happened to me recently, and I still smart! grateful for this opportunity to ask your opinion.
On a visit to my husband's family recently, I make a mistake while setting the table. Foolishly, I offered to help my sister-in-law, who is always formal -- and has the room and the means to be -- set her dinner table. I put the fork (one) on the napkin and on the place mat. As I completed the setting for eight all around, I noticed the forks had been removed and were on the place mat, and the napkins off to the left of it.
I was embarrassed and I said to my sister-in-law, "I know that's the proper way to set the table. Wonder why I put the fork on the napkin?"
She made reference to the fact that perhaps it's because that's the way it's done in restaurants. After we came home, I knew it wasn't restaurants, it's because we have always had a smaller dinning space and table. But I'll never offer to help again.
The other thing happened at breakfast the following morning. My husband's brother and his wife are married 32 years, go to business together and drove for four hours to come to that gathering, so they have plenty of time to talk to each other about the people who live in their small town -- none of whom we know. But for over two hours, they talked across the table -- first one then the other would butt in. Our heads were turning as though we were at a tennis match. There was no way to change the subject or even inject a word from time to time.
Now -- the reason we try to get together once a year is a catch up on all the news about our children (all grown) and what we've been doing in business, etc. And this visit we planned to discuss a book we had all read. Needless to say, we never got around to that -- any of it. Finally, frustrated, we said our polite "thank you's" and departed for home.
The way I feel at this point in my life I'm 55, my husband is 56) is, I really do not have the time waste like this, nor do I need to be taught proper place-setting arrangement. Seems to me that family gatherings should be easy and relaxed and comfortable. It is in our home. Anyhow, thanks for listening. You are the only one I've talked to about this.
A. It is a subject that interests Miss Manners very much. She agrees that family gatherings should be easy and relaxed and comfortable, but is under no illusion that this state is easy to achieve. It does not often come naturally.
What does seem to come naturally, far too often, is the trick of using points of etiquette as darts to express hostility. The putting together of different families -- in other words, in-laws -- involves mixing people who were brought up with different habits. There are many different ways to set a table, for example -- Miss Manners prefers to center the napkin on the plate, rather than to follow your sister-in-laws's method -- and they include a variety of "correct" styles. But one often hears such differences cited as evidence of the superiority of one branch of a family or another.
By your account, your sister-in-law did not attempts to do this. She merely put the final touches on her own table in her own way, and even supplies you with a respectable excuse to cover your embarrassment. It is Miss Manners' feeling that you took insult when none was intended. It is certainly the privilege of the hostess to have her table laid in her accustomed style, even if that means building on someone else's work.
Monopolizing conversation, especially in a husband-and-wife act, is certainly inconsiderate. But if you truly believe in relaxed and comfortable standards among relatives, you should be able to speak about this more freely than you would among acquaintances in a formal situation. Being able to say, "Come on, Pauline and Paul -- you can gossip about the neighbors on the way home; we want to hear about the children" is one of the privileges of family.
Following your own prescription, Miss Manners recommends to you taking family gatherings "easily."