TECHNICALLY, there is no such thing as accidental rudeness. Try to remember this when you are stabbed with an umbrella, trodden on, given a dial tone after being told to "hold on" the telephone, greeted by a name that is not yours, stood up by a dinner guest or sneezed upon.
A true insult, Miss Manners believes, must be intentional. The insulter must understand what is expected, and do either something else, or nothing at all.
Today, however, the insult threshold seems to have lowered below this standard. All sorts of people are running around sulking, pouting, acting huffy or retaliating as the result of kindly meant actions.
This is most apparent in the relationships between men and women, partly because these are in a state of transition, open to misinterpretation, and also because everything always becomes more apparent when it's between men and women.
A gentleman holds the door open for a lady, and she sails through, insulted by the suggestion that she is too weak to manage the door herself.
A lady gives her seat in the subway to a gentleman many years her senior, and he haughtily rejects it because it seems to suggest that the power of his manhood is past.
A married woman is insulted by being considered socially as half a couple, so that she is not invited when her husband cannot or will not attend. An unmarried man is insulted by being invited socially without his live-in lover's inclusion.
Some women are insulted by being styled "Ms.," others by "Mrs." or "Miss." Couples are insulted by being addressed conventionally by those who do not know which name they have decided is to come first, or how they have used their mutual inheritance of surnames for themselves and their children.
All this has got to stop. There is little enough courtesy in the world. Miss Manners has observed; we cannot afford to go around rejecting what attempts to pass for it.
In chaotic times, a consideration of motivation becomes important. Complete ignorance of prevailing manners is not much of an excuse, but perhaps it is a little -- in unfortunate children whose parents brought them up to be "free" rather than polite. But ignorance of revisions in manners since one was reared, or of the custom-made preferences of individuals, is more of an excuse.
It is true that manners grow and change, as does language, but also true that traditional usage has special sweetness to those who have long known it. What social reformers must realize is that there can be a gap between reason and habit. It is rude to subject tiny courtesies to philosophical scrutiny.
The polite thing to do has always been to address people as they wish to be addressed, to treat them in a way they think dignified. But it is equally important to accept and tolerate different standards of courtesy, not expecting everyone else to adapt to one's own preferences.
Only then can we hope to restore the insult to its proper social function of expressing true distaste. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. I have failed at the art of conversation and most desperately need your help! While my husband and I were sitting at dinner the other night with another married couple, the other man turned to me and -- apropos of nothing in the conversation -- declared that he was now "safe." Naive as always, I asked, "What do you mean safe'?" "A vasectomy," he proudly announced!
Nearly speechless, I frantically searched for the proper response -- but a sputter and a giggle were all I came up with. Any suggestions?
A. Ah, isn't it wonderful what passes for conversation-openers these days? You can hardly sit down at dinner any more, without being told what everyone does with the parts of the body that cannot be seen above the table. Miss Manners is going to take to shocking perfect strangers by looking them deep in the eyes and saying, "Beastly weather we've been having lately, don't you think?"
But she cannot improve on your response, which was perfectly proper -- unless it would be by accompanying your sputter and giggle with the appropriate gesture of staring the man straight in the napkin.
Q. Recently, I had a discussion as to the proper and legal name when one marries. Does a new bride retain her maiden name and discontinue the use of her middle name? Is either correct? I would appreciate your printing this for the sake of the discussion.
A. Your legal name is whatever you choose it to be. Miss Manners would not even promise to call any of the combinations of maiden, married or hyphenated names one now sees "incorrect." However, if you ask what we staid, fastidious, super-proper ladies have traditionally preferred, it is to "change" the last name. In other words, one retains one's first and middle name, and changes the surname of the father for that of the husband.
Q. Another big family dinner? I can't stand it, I can't stand it, I can't stand it!
First of all, they'll all show up looking like slobs because "it's only family." The kids will be dirty before they get here, and it won't be 10 minutes before they'll get a good fight going, and then the various grown-ups will start one by making remarks about how this child or that one was brought up (meaning they weren't). It's all right to insult people, you see, because families should be frank. I don't even want to think about the table manners. The children don't have any, and the grown-ups do but don't use them because "among family" it's fine to hunch over the table, talk with your mouth full, eat with your fingers and discuss your digestion problems.
Also, they'll turn on the television during dinner, and in the interests of "saving work," they'll offer to lick their dinner forks and use them for dessert, and ask for paper napkins.
Believe it or not, these people -- my relatives! -- are not animals when they take clients out to dinner or see their friends. Just with family.
I keep hearing that "the family is dying" in America. Any chance of this happening before dinner today?
A. Miss Manners has heard a great deal about the death of the family, but little about the death of the family dinner. In her opinion, the crime are inseparable, as a murders-suicide.
Properly practiced, the family dinner is a pleasure that makes keeping the family together worthwhile. People who know only the company dinner table and the kitchen counter, with nothing in between, don't know what they're missing.
Your family is among these unfortunates. If each household representing part of the greater family were to learn the ritual through daily practice, you might even be able to save the extended family, which sounds as if it is heading straight for extinction, probably today.
Here are the rules:
Family dinner is regularly scheduled every night of the week, and delays or absences must be registered in advance.
A reasonable attempt is made to make the table and the participants presentable. It's amazing what cloth napkins can do for the one and washcloths for the other.
Entertainment is live, not electronic. First, each person gets a turn to present his or her news of the day, and then general conversation is held. Television and telephone interruptions are now allowed, but bragging is even encouraged.
Good table manners are practiced, but they are good family table manners, as opposed to good company table manners. The chief difference is that chicken, spareribs, and other such messes may be picked up and thus enjoyed in a way they never satisfactorily are with knife and fork. Spoons may even be used for getting up all of special sauces -- but only in the privacy of the family, with a strict pact never to tell outsiders.
This delicate blend of politeness and piggishness is extremely pleasant. Neither eating out nor eating directly from stove top or refrigerator can compare to it. It even justifies keeping one's family alive.