THE CHARMING old custom of calling, or paying short regular visits to one's entire circle of acquaintances to thank them for hospitality, mark the milestones of life and generally acknowledge their existence, has died out of general use simply because it was time-consuming, boring and without content. Eventually, Miss Manners has noticed, it was replaced by television.
In its true form, calling was a lady's principal occupation. Each one chose a day of the week on which she declared herself at home to receive calls, and the rest of the week was spent inflicting visits on others. Births, engagements, marriages, moves and deaths required that those who performed them, or their immediate relatives, be called upon. Every guest had to call on every hostess after every party. Then every call had to be returned with a call equal in length but opposite in direction.
It kept the ladies on the streets, rather than off, and rebellion arose. Dear Edith Wharton recalled her mother's day, when "the onerous and endless business of 'calling' took up every spare hour," and how "by the time I grew up, the younger married women had emancipated themselves and simply drove from house to house depositing their cards, duly turned down in the upper left-hand corner, to the indignation of stay-at-home hostesses, many of whom made their servants keep a list of the callers who 'did not ask,' so that these might be struck off the next season's invitation list -- a punishment borne by the young and the gay with perfect equanimity, as it was only the dull hostesses who inflicted it."
For a long time, the drama continued symbolically with the actors absent from the stage. Small, strange niceties developed, such as a lady's being honor-bound to be present in her carriage while her chauffeur took the cards -- one each from each lady in her family for each lady in the called-upon family, and a card each from the gentlemen in the calling family for every person in the called-upon family -- to the servant whose job it was to announce that the lady of the house was not at home.
The virtual disappearance of this crucial servant brought an end to the vestigal remains of calling everywhere but in a few diplomatic communities, where the civilized pleasure of sitting face to face for 15 minutes with someone with whom you have little in common, perhaps not even a language, is still appreciated.
Otherwise, modern calling has been reduced to the following paltry rules:
1. Real, old-fashioned, in-person calls are paid upon a birth and death and, if appropriate and welcome, on the occasion of an illness. Calling on new neighbors is charming but optional. In all of these cases, one must telephone to make an appointment, but new parents and the newly bereaved are supposed to make themselves available to receive these visits.
2. Hospitality is generally considered sufficiently acknowledged by the offer of comparable return hospitality. The exception is the seated dinner, for which a letter or a telephone call (Miss Manners prefers the letter) is required. Other letters of thanks for hospitality are always appropriate, but not mandatory.
3. Routine social calling is done by telephone. That is, one can call, in this fashion, nearly any time of day and expect, as the ladies plying the avenues in their carriages did, to be received unless there is a specific excuse offered. The facility with which people can be trapped by telephone callers is, in Miss Manners' opinion, one of the serious drawbacks of modern life. She recommends leniency in accepting excuses by the called upon of not being able to talk, and makes it a point of honor never to recognize the voice of a lady explaining that she is not at home.
4. Dropping in does not exist in proper modern society. Those who practice it should be prepared not to recognize by sight ladies who are trying to establish that they are not at home. Miss Manners Responds
Q. I am interested in knowing the proper method for breaking off a relationship. For the past several months, I have been dating, very regularly and exclusively, a young lady of whom I was extremely fond. Everything seemed to be going great until about two months ago, when she suddenly seemed to lose interest in me. Every time I wanted to see her, she was busy, etc., until finally I just stopped calling her. I have not heard from her since.
The reason for her behavior is still unknown to me. However, that is not the point I am raising. What I would like to know is what you think of breaking off a relationship in this manner, and how it should be handled.
A. What you describe is your basic Kafka Romance Dissolver, and you handled it in an exactly correct manner. Do not be offended if Miss Manners approves of the young lady's behavior, as well.
Naturally, you were hurt and bewildered when your invitations were repeatedly rejected without explanation. Miss Manners would like to point out to you, however, that there is no possible way for one person to end a romance that the other person thought was going great, without causing pain and bewilderment. The chief difference between the Kafka method and those more socially approved ones that come with explanations, is that the latter engender humiliation, as well as pain and bewilderment.
What, after all, can the explanation be?
"Sure I like you, but I met someone I'm really crazy about."
"I know you can't help it, but there are a lot of things about you that were beginning to get on my nerves."
"It was fun for a while, but lately I've found myself getting bored and restless."
And so on. Rarely, these days, does anyone break off an exciting, stimulating, fulfilling romance to lead a life of service, or to save the family through an expedient alliance.
Therefore, all explanation can be reduced to the fact that the other person would rather do something else -- sometimes anything else -- than continue the romance. Such attempts to obfuscate, such as "I love you, but I need room to grow," don't fool anyone anymore.
The patronizing sweeteners customarily added to these explanations are particularly galling. It is easier to bear being denounced as a villain by someone you still love than to be told that you are a "nice person but."
Perhaps you will object that the method without explanation took some time because its comparative subtlety confused you about what was actually happening. Granted. Nevertheless, Miss Manners maintains that the period of suffering was, in the end, shorter.
The early phase, say the first two rejections, was annoyance rather than devastation, because you did not yet believe it. Then you began to suspect and pay attention; you guessed; you tested the hypothesis by ending your calls; and then you had your proof. Indeed, that period must have hurt.
Consider what that time would have been like had you been spending it discussing the situation with the young lady. As the explanation method spuriously suggests reasons for the whims of the heart, the reaction of the rejected person is always to offer counter arguments. It would have taken just as long and, as the young lady would be forced to escalate her objections to overcome your arguments, the pain would have been more intense.
The true reward comes now. In your memory, you may set this young lady forever as a fool who didn't know how to appreciate you. You needn't carry around the certain knowledge of how little she appreciated you, nor the memory of your having made a fool of yourself trying to argue the matter with her.