IS IT POSSIBLE, as Miss Manners has been hearing lately, that there is a general yearning to return to formality? She can scarcely restrain her excitement. Perhaps she has misunderstood. Miss Manners has always had trouble with the word "formal," because to her it means white tie, as opposed to black tie, which is "informal" or "We're not dressing." The latter is an expression Miss Manners wouldn't have dared use in the last two decades.
But if we are truly to have formal dinners again, Miss Manners begs that they be done right. Slipshod ways have crept in everywhere, with the most unlikely people absurdly claiming that they want their parties to be "fun" or their guests to feel "comfortable."
If that is the object, Miss Manners, for one, would just as soon stay home.
To begin with, Miss Manners wants all formal dinner invitations and responses to be written. She never wants to see an engraved telephone number again.
Nor does she ever again want to see the abominable designation "and guest." Everyone must be invited by name, including Mrs. Guest.
There is to be no skimiping on the paperwork. She wants seating charts in the hallway, so that guests may study them before having to face the assemblage, cards with each lady's name put onto a little envelope bearing the name of the gentleman who is to be her dinner partner; and place cards on the table. This system may involve a great deal of writing (why else are so many people studying caligraphy these days?) but it gives the guests a sporting chance to fake remembering one another, to avoid their dinner partners before dinner and, for the adventurous, to sneak into the dining room before dinner and improve their lot.
Miss Manners also wants to see menu cards on the table, and she wants them back in French, a time-honored affectation. Classical Athenians wrote their menus in Doric. A little mental exertion before eating is good for you.
She expects the table to be set with a white or off-white tablecloth in damask or lace, rather than the now-traditional flowered bedsheets. People who give formal dinner parties have no business being clever and creative. The centerpiece should be flowers flanked by candles, with small dishes of candy and fruit placed strategically and symmetrically. People who attend formal dinners should not require conversation pieces.
The guests should be announced as they first arrive, wives before husbands. Miss Manners is aware that this is reversed when the man has an official title, but has never liked that. She believes the two systems could be reconciled by giving all such titles to women.
She expects the dinner guests to arrive by eight minutes after the appointed time, and to be allowed another 20 minutes for a drink before the butler announces, "Dinner is served." (Actually, Miss Manners prefers his saying to the hostess, "Madam is served.") Too bad for anyone who isn't there. People who give formal dinner parties should have learned ruthlessness.
She expects there to be identical platters and footmen (even if it is hard to find identical footmen these days) for each four to six guests. This is the only way to have proper Russian service, in which a filled plate is never put before a guest, and fresh plates are put down as used ones are removed, so no guest has an empty place until the table is cleared for dessert. r
Nor does she want to see filled coffee cups being offered, with the ligueurs and the cigars after dinner, to the gentlemen in the smoking room and to the ladies in the drawing room. The coffee must be poured.
But wait! Make that the smokers in the smoking room, and the ladies and gentlemen in the drawing room. That other form of separation was silly. There is no sense in being a slave to tradition. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. I am sorely puzzled. This past season, four different couples I know all produced their first-born children. During the pregnancies, I asked at various times how the mother was, etc. But in each case, once the baby was born no one bothered to let me know about the actual birth, and whether they had a boy or a girl. Have birth announcements vanished from our culture? Is it proper to ask: "Did Marilyn finally have the baby?" I feel a bit put-out at the parents in question for not letting me know of their blessed event. Whose responsibility is it -- mine to ask or theirs to announce?
A. What has vanished is the simple, guileness note, telling people something they might like to know. Why bring children into a world where no one writes letters?
By birth "announcements" you probably mean the wee cards that come in two styles: cutsey and pseudo-formal. The reason some new parents don't send them is that they are afraid they would be interpreted as bids for presents.
The best way to find out is to tell an expectant father, "Please put me on your list of people to call when the baby is born." Telephoning is considered a new father's first duty after driving the expectant mother to the hospital. You take the risk of his assuming that you are awake when he is.
Otherwise, you can certainly ask, but do it kindly, or some day you will ask, with that "put-out" tone in your voice, and be told, "The baby was stillborn." Miss Manners has her reasons for objecting to heavy sarcasm.
Q. I know you're not supposed to break one date when a better one comes along. I went by this rule when I was dating, because my mother drummed it into me, and I think I missed out on some terrific opportunities while I dutifully entertained the drips. Virtue isn't always rewarded.
Anyway now I'm married, and my husband and I love to go out. We don't feel bad about breaking a date to go out to eat with another couple if someone else invites us to a dinner party, because that seems to be a different level of engagement, if you know what I mean. But what about canceling one dinner party to go to another?
Is there any socially impeccable way of doing this?
A. Only one. The correct wording is: Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Dashing regret extremely that an invitation to the White House prevents their keeping their previous engagement for Saturday, the seventh of March
Q. I am in the embarrassing position of having been asked to write a letter of recommendation for someone I can't honestly recommend. I don't want to be cruel and prevent his getting another job . . . What am I saying? wI desperately want him to get another job. That would save me the trouble of firing him. But I don't know if it's right to stick the next person by misrepresenting his qualifications.
A. Ah, the great moral conflict in life -- honesty or kindness? Miss Manners tends to choose kindness, feeling that there is quite enough honesty in the world, but this is an occasion for compromise.
Sometimes one can avoid writing a letter of reference, saying, "Perhaps you could find someone who would be able to write you a stronger letter than I could," or "I don't feel I know enough about your qualifications." Those take care of the troublesome student, or an acquaintance's nephew.
When failure to write any letter would be a blot on the person's career, something must be produced. The object is to suggest severe problems without zapping the person. The tone to take is: He probably has lots of talents that would come to light in a situation where skills such as alphabetizing correctly aren't needed.
Q. At home, I am a "dunker." I love to dunk everything (donuts, cakes, etc.) in my tea or coffee. It's the way I enjoy my milk and cookies.
However, when I am in a restaurant or visiting someone, I "hold back" because I feel it is considered bad manners. Is it?
A. In admitting that it is, Miss Manners is tempted to add a word of consolation, indicating that she knows what fun you must be having at home and is sorry to keep you from transporting it beyond your door. However, on second thought, it occurs to her that you wouldn't have nearly as much pleasure from dunking your cookies in your milk at home if you weren't aware that it was naughty.