Q. Please bring the issue of eye contact into focus for me. I am a 25-year-old, unmarried, half-Oriental female. My entire life prior to May of this year was spent in the Far East, where staring into the pupils of another is the height of impropriety (or come-and-get-it-ness). I have since been accused of avoiding the issue, and now feel that my adjustment to the United States will never be complete without some kind of "code of looks."
A. What pretentious people call "body language" and make fortunes writing paperback books about, Miss Manners considers merely details of etiquette that vary from culture to culture. In a way, it is more important to learn these when going from one society to another than it is to learn the more obvious forms, such as the table manners, because people often fail to realize that such behavior as eye contact is learned, and they pounce on it as being psychologically revealing.
Miss Manners once had a similar problem, when she was a girl, back before she became perfect. After a year's residency in South America, she found she was standing closer to people when she conversed with them than is customary in North America, and that her perfectly decent behavior was being interpreted as flirtatious. The solution was merely to relearn the American standard for the proper distance between conversing acquaintances, which is a few inches farther apart than it had been in South America.
Miss Manners advises you to learn the American etiquette with regard to eye contact for use here, rather than to endure the handicap of being misinterpreted by people who are ignorant of foreign customs.
In this country, it is considered polite to look people in the eye when conversing with them. If you find this difficult, an alternative is to look away but maintain a smile, in which case your behavior will be misinterpreted as charming demureness. That, at least, is better than being considered shifty.
Q. If you visit a party several times and they do not repay calls; you write letters and get no answers -- I say these people are giving you a message. My family disagrees. Will you please advise the proper etiquette?
A. Look at it this way: If such people really want to maintain a relationship, there are many things they can do. They can explain that something has prevented them from seeing you but that they truly want to, they can extend invitations, they can call and protest that their neglect should not be counted as a lack of interest.
But if they don't want to have anything to do with you, what more can they do to show this than exactly what they have done?
Miss Manners believes that it is essential to proper, dignified behavior to know how to accept a snub graciously.
Q. My home economics teacher says that one must never place one's elbows on the table. However, I have read that one elbow, in between courses, is all right. Which is correct?
A. For the purpose of answering examinations in your home economics class, your teacher is correct. Catching on to this principle of education may be of even greater importance to you now than learning correct current tables manners, vital as Miss Manners believes that is.
The well-known command of "no elbows on the table" refers chiefly to the necessity of keeping one's elbows stuck to one's own ribs while going through the maneuvers of eating. When one is not actually eating, it is still a good rule to keep one's arms close to the body, but a less formal posture, with one elbow parked close to the plate during a pause in the meal, is no longer punishable by hanging.