AS A SOCIAL activity, having guests over to watch television ranks, in Miss Manners' opinion, just below inviting people to run down to the corner to see if it is raining.
Why would anyone invite real guests to watch electronic "guests" talk to a canned "host"? Surely the primary host-guest group has to be better than that. One's own guests seldom wave their books in your face and demand that you buy copies.
However, Miss Manners recognizes that there are certain state occasions, such as the presidential election and the Superbowl, when one seeks one's fellow humans to share disaster or to enhance one's own triumph with their misery.
If Miss Manners tells you how to give a television-watching party on these occasions, will you promise always to snap off the television set when you have guests on ordinary days?
The guest list is important for the election or sports party. This is a good time not to invite one's friends who have a predilection for violence. Highly excitable people who prefer red wine to white are also to be avoided by hosts with white velvet sofas.
Mild range of opinion can be interesting, if it is kept in bounds. What is even better than an articulate but tolerant person with the ability to explain his views reasonably is a guest who is physically capable, for short periods of time throughout a long evening, of watching without eating. Otherwise, a host could easily serve the equivalent of four suppers during a hotly contested election.
Television food needs to be safe, manageable and digestible. Any nursery school teacher's aide who is in charge of snack time can give you the general idea, although that drink menu probably needs to be supplemented. It's just that people who consume nothing but beer and the contents of cellophane bags until the polls close in Hawaii are not happy people when the election is called, no matter who wins.
The key, however, is to have more than one center of interest. The television set and the food tble are two, and a second set, perhaps turned to a different channel would be a third. The point of this is to get people moving before their limbs petrify, and to separate the lecturers from the commentators.
Miss Manners is not suggesting that any provision be made for those who want to watch in silence. They should stay home. Talking back to a television set is an acceptable exercise, and all that some people get.
But two forms of conversation are possible, and those who practice one are apt to be annoyed at the intrusion of the other. At one set, you should aim for a discussion group on the material being watched -- how the election is going, in relation to one's own predictions, or how one would oneself have played the game. The other is on how it is being televised -- the commentary, personalities of announcers, and such.
If no permanent damage has been done to anyone's digestion or friendship at the end of many hours of television watching, the event can be counted as a success.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q: It's not as easy as you imagine to be polite while you have to scrounge for a living. You give me a surefire way of getting rich quick, and I promise to behave perfectly from that moment on.
A: Very well. Think of a business that particularly caters to some legitimate need of people who live alone. There must be nothing about it that suggests recreation -- not even music playing the background. The atmosphere should be no-nonsense, utilitarian and eminently respectable.
Then devise some way of keeping all of your customers waiting. Service should be delayed just long enough to get people grumbling to one another, but not long enough to make them walk away in disgust. You should aim at having a good-sized group of unmarried people standing together with a common practical purpose and nothing to do but to talk to one another while they wait. Miss Manners realizes that she has just described a laundromat, but perhaps you can think of something else.
Q: What kind of sympathy card do you consider dignified? Does the sender need to do anything more than sign it? In that case, what is the proper response from the person who has received it? Also, would you give me the correct wording for a card for the family to send out acknowledging cards, flowers, visits and gifts of food?
A: Miss Manners is going to have to be very stern with you, in spite of her presumption that you are already feeling burdened, as well as grieved.
Death is one of the times when human contact among those who care is most important. No sympathy cards are proper. No acknowledgement cards are proper. A letter of condolence should be written by hand; two sentences will do. The return letter need say no more than "Thank you for your sympathy. It means a great deal to me." Writing these out by hand does not take a minute more than signing a card, but it makes the difference between a cold, canned sentiment and a fresh, warm one.
Q: Please write something about people who insist upon talking while in church. They are the bane of my existence. At the end of a harried week, I love to be quiet in some lovely church and prepare myself for the coming week. Yesterday, I went to the cathedral in the hopes of doing just that. A choir was to perform for an hour before the ll o'clock service. For a while it was sheer heaven to hear the blending of those lovely voices. Then a woman tourist (from Ohio) came and sat beside another woman. They struck up a conversation and for the next 25 minutes or so covered the waterfront in topics, all the way from racism to world affairs, the interior of the cathedral and life on a farm!
I looked at them, I coughed, I twisted, I used ESP to no avail. Finally, I let out a sigh, saying under my breath. "Oh, me." The quiet woman on my other side said, "Isn't it awful?" My son said that I should have said something, and now, in retrospect, I know I should have -- especially since they were too insensitive to get my various hints. This talking when one should be quiet happens everywhere these days -- in theater, libraries, churches, etc. Why is it?
A: This is what comes of such evils as transistor radios, background music and keeping the television set going during dinner and homework. Many people believe that constant noise is normal. These people are, perhaps, not responsible for themselves, as sound has melted their brains.
However, this diatribe does not help your problem, any more than a diatribe on your part would contribute to the proper atmosphere in church.
Perhaps because she is small and polite, Miss Manners does not believe in direct confrontation with evildoers in public places, beyond the sort of coughing, twisting and staring you have already tried. Aggression on the part of shushers is often ruder and noisier than the original crime.
She suggests that you appeal to a higher authority. In a theater, this might be an usher; in a library, a librarian. In church, you might even appeal, out loud, to a Higher Authority. "O God, grant me the serenity of a peaceful place to worship and the patience to bear with those who disturb it."