Q. In these times of relaxed social mores, some of us who grew up with a fairly rigid definition of acceptable behavior are finding ourselves somewhat socially dysfunctional.

I am a middle-aged divorcee who is afraid to accept dates for fear that my escort may offer an "improper suggestion" at the end of the evening. I would not care to accept an invitation for which payment was expected "later," and I do not wish to insult the extender of invitations by suggesting in advance that they may have ulterior motives. I have, on a few occasions, accepted invitations with the understanding that we would go "dutch," but some men find this offensive and others seem to think that such liberation is just a prelude to wild, amorous abandon.

I am willing to spend the rest of mu life alone, if necessary; but that is not my first choice of life style. Have you any advice that will help me and my fellow anachronisms cope with the changing scene?

A. That is what Miss Manners is here for. If everyone agreed upon and followed the same standard of acceptable behavior -- why, Miss Manners could go back to her chaise longue and finish her novel.

Let us first identify what it is in the current scene, as you say, that has actually changed. Surely there have always been gentlemen who have interpreted any behavior at all on the part of a lady, including screaming, "No, no!" as "a prelude to wild amorous abandon." In addition, the vulgar assumption that money spent on entertaining a lady is a short-term investment, collectable before the food has left her digestive tract, is of long standing.

The difference you observe is made by inflation. In the past. a gentleman might consider himself sufficiently rewarded by a smile or a press of the hand. mBut the price of dinner and theater tickets has gone up, and he accordingly, came to expect a kiss at the doorstep or even, Miss Manners is told, something more.

At the same time, there has been a deflation in language. A gentleman who might once have begged a lady to pity his lovesick heart is now apt to state somewhat more expressly what he expects her to do with what.

None of this should obscure the outrageousness of the ancient premise that a gentleman who spends money on a lady has legitimately purchased her favors. Such transactions are available commercially, Miss Manners is given to understand, but have no place in decent society. We all know that the only reason a true gentleman takes a lady out is for the pleasure of her society and that the only reason a lady gives her favors is that she is overcome by uncontrollable passion.

If the passion seizes her before she has asked him his last name, or if he hopes to implant such a passion by taking her to Paris for the weekend -- well, that does not negate the principle.

What, then, should you do when a gentleman makes an "improper suggestion?"

You should decline it, of course. In these vulgar days, improper suggestions are made rather conventionally, and extreme outrage is not appreciated unless the man (being no longer entitled to be called a gentleman) is so rude as to state that premise about the payment being due. As Miss Manners has indicated, most gentlemen mistakenly believe this premise, but only a cad would put it into words.

The important thing is that you must understand that you have incurred no such obligation. If you firmly believe this, and if the gentleman has made his improper suggestion with acceptable delicacy, you will be able to decline graciously, as you would if a hostess offered you her special dessert, of which she was enormously proud, but for which you had no desire.