IT IS A dreary convention of the modern etiquette business that the arbiter of manners assumes that the followers are so modest in ambition or means as not to employ servants, at least not of proper training or in sufficient numbers.

Miss Manners is fed up with all this timidity and egalitarianism. Wouldn't you like to know how a dinner is properly served, whether or not you live to eat it that way? Miss Manners would like to tell you.

The place setting for each guest is called a cover, and it consists of a service plate (silver or china will do), all the necessary flatware except that for dessert, and stemmed glasses for water, and two or three wines, with the champagne glass at the back for dessert time.

On the service plate is the rolled napkin, with the place card on top; and above the plate are individual salt cellars, ash trays, nut dishes and the handwritten menu.

To the right of the plate, from outside in, are the oyster fork nesting in the bowl of the soup spoon, the fish knife, the meat knife and the salad knife or the fruit knife; to the left, also from outside in, are the fish fork, meat fork and salad or fruit knife. But, you protest, can't I eat both fruit and salad courses? Yes, yes, of course, but it is considered bad form to have more than three knifes or forks on the table, so the salad or the fruit equipment is brought in on a tray when that course is served.

The oyster plate is put on top of the service plate; and when that is cleared, the soup plate (not bowl) is put on the service plate. The latter two are then removed together, with a heated plate put at the place. The rule is that a filled plate is always replaced by an empty one, and no place is without a plate until just before dessert.

Don't you love this already? Aren't you ready to head for the employment office to recruit the personnel? Ask for someone who understands service a la Russe.

As a filled plate is never put before a guest, the fish and meat courses must be served from platters. It is up to each guest to take notice of how many people each platter is expected to serve (one footman starts at one side of the table, while another starts opposite, with identical platters) and estimate his or her portion. No seconds, folks.

Before the dessert, everything is removed from the table except the wine and water glasses. (No, not the tablecloths and menus. No wonder it's so hard to get help nowadays. Who wants to work for a smarty?)

The table is then discreetly swept clear of all crumbs, except, of course, those who are invited guests.

Dessert (which may be subdivided into ices, fruit and sweets, but never mind because the most you will ever see is a fruit and cheese course, followed by the sweet, which may or may not be ice cream) -- as Miss Manners was saying, the dessert is brought in with a doily on top, a finger bowl on top of that, a fork balanced on the left side of the plate and a spoon on the right.

The guest removes the doily and finger bowl, parks it to the left of the plate, and places the fork and spoon on either side of the plate before dessert is served. That, Miss Manners supposes, was the beginning of self-service. And as that brings us around full circle, you will excuse Miss Manners, who is going into the drawing room for coffee.


Q: The fiance' of a dear friend of mine visited here recently and stayed at my apartment. After he left, we discovered an alien pair of jockey shorts in the bathroom. They were not mine, because I don't wear jockey shorts, and they were not my roommate's, because he doesn't wear any shorts at all. My question is this. How can I graciously return these shorts to their rightful owner? My roommate says there is no gracious way to return jockey shorts. I say, if there is one, Miss Manners will know it. Can you help us out?

A: Of course. Did you think one could survive in the etiquette business these days without knowing how to advise people to dispose of strange underwear?

Write the gentleman a note, or tell him through his fiance', that you have discovered some strange clothing in the apartment, which could belong to him or to other houseguests you have entertained. Ask him to let you know if he is missing anything. You will give him the opportunity to decide which is more important to him -- saving embarrassment or saving on underwear.

Q: Increasing food costs are always effective in introducing one to new foods. Many cuts of meat considered less than appetizing only a few years ago are already seeming more and more desirable.

Please provide me with some advice for an upcoming dinner party. How does one carve eel?

A: Crosswise, not lengthwise.

Q: I have a question concerning post-party etiquette. A young lady, who shall of course remain anonymous, grew vio1ently ill at the conclusion of a party which my roommate and I were hosting. I have reason to suspect she had overimbibed. At any rate, she erupted a la Mount St. Helens in and around our shower, decimating my one-month-old bathmat in the process.

Since I departed on a holiday excursion the following morning, my roommate reluctantly assumed the onus of raking and scouring the shower, a necessity we'd foreseen.

My query is, must I also be expected to absorb the relatively minor expense of replacing my ill-fated but beloved bath mat? It was only a $10 item, but as each day passes and my roommate and I happen upon heretofore undiscovered but by now somewhat congealed remnants of the regrettable cataclysm, I am inclined more toward the notion that my friend ought to step forward cheerfully and offer to replace the bathmat.

A: Miss Manners understands your distaste at having the unfortunate incident recalled to you in an unpleasantly tangible form every time you go into the bathroom, but begs you to consider how your friend enjoys remembering what happened. Suffering from having such a disaster in one's bathroom is not to be compared with the suffering from having it on one's conscience.

The kind thing to do for a friend -- even the decent thing to do for a stranger -- is to appear to have forgotten the incident. It is possible, of course, that your friend does not have it in her memory, for one reason or another.

The anguish you would engender by recalling it to her -- or, worse, of recounting it to her if she were unaware of it -- is not, in Miss Manners opinion, worth $10.

Q: Sometimes, during usual social intercourse, one meets a person who makes remarks of a particularly interesting nature, and one asks that person to extend those remarks via post or, perhaps, some other normal form of communication. If one does not hear from the person in a few weeks' time, one forgets what the point of interest was, but one remembers the rather brutal negligence of the person.

What does one do if one meets this person again, or if one never meets this person again?

A: It cannot be considered a normal form of communication to give out homework assignments at social functions. As if that were not astounding enough, you have become indignant when the assignments were not handed in.

If a person's conversation interests you, the proper response is to say, "Oh, do tell me more about that." Even more flattering is to extend to that person an invitation to provide an opportunity for continuing the conversation at another time. What you have concocted under the disguise of flattery is not exactly an insult, but a request for an insult to be directed to yourself.

Now that Miss Manners has insulted you, as well, may she ask you a question? If the subjects are so interesting, how come you can't remember what they were?