YOU ARE temporarily stranded at a large party, and note with some satisfaction that a stranger is bearing down on you with a social gleam in his eye. You produce a modest smile, pleasant enough to be interpreted as a welcome, but vacant enough--in case you mistook the stranger's goal--to be taken for a general air of imbecility.
"If you were to be hanged at noon tomorrow," says this candidate for friendship, "what three things would you try to do tonight?"
A true opening gambit, requiring a thoughtful reply. Miss Manners' reply would undoubtedly be, "I'm so sorry, I was just on my way to find some sherry; please excuse me." Miss Manners detests opening gambits.
Others detest straightforward openings, such as questions about their addresses, their families or their occupations. Miss Manners has heard these imputed to be crude inquiries about money and connections, intended to establish whether a person is worth cultivating. As such critiques invariably end in declarations that the objector is a warm and wonderful person and expects to be valued simply as a human being -- an outrageous social demand when you think about it -- Miss Manners prefers to avoid them.
The problem remains, however, of how to discover a topic of interest with a stranger on which real conversation may be based.
It can be done, but it requires patience and cooperation. If you are not willing to make such investments, you will be forever at the mercy of the sort of hosts who push you into a strange body and declare, "You'll love Samantha -- she was just divorced, too!"
Cooperation is necessary because there are two parts to be played; and patience because it takes a few minutes, most of which are more utilitarian than interesting.
Of course, you want to know whether the new person is married or has children, what he or she does by profession and for recreation, and generally how he or she prefers to live. The snobbery only exists when people decide beforehand what they find acceptable and avoid those who don't fit.
Direct questioning is awkward only because it restricts the probing to the subdivision selected by the questioner. For example, some people don't like to be identified by their jobs because they think them not important enough, while others, satisfied with their success, feel exploited if asked to display their skills when out socially. The person who opens should therefore try a neutral subject that can be answered many ways. The opener must have the patience to withhold his own brilliance until the other person has had a chance. Dare to be dull!
The second person must answer the question artfully, putting in both his selection of topic and threads that may be taken up. He must reverse the order and find out something about the opener. Here is a sample.
First person: Did you get caught in the rain?
Second person: I was glad to see it -- it's good for my flowers.
First person: Oh, do you garden in the city? Or do you live in the country?
Second person: Anyway, I heard it's turning to snow.
First person: I'm happy to hear it. I haven't had a chance to do much skiing yet this year.
Second person: Oh, do you ski with your whole family?
Miss Manners hears you protest that this is some of the worst dialogue through which you have ever suffered. True. But now that they know so much about each other, it is going to pick up amazingly. And what did the gambit player find out about Miss Manners? Only that she likes sherry. No -- only that she prefers sherry to gambits.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. All my friends are going away for the holidays. I won't have anyone to play with or invite over. This happens every time we have a vacation, and lots of times on weekends. Everybody goes to visit their father in nice places, and I have to stay home because my parents aren't divorced. Also, they get more presents.
A. That is hard, and Miss Manners sympathizes with you, but you must learn that life is difficult and we can't always get what we want. Your parents have their own lives to live, and if they insist on finding happiness with each other, you have to accept and respect that, no matter how deeply you feel that it interferes with your having a normal life like your friends. One day you may be a parent yourself and come to understand that a good marriage is so important that it should not be sacrificed, even to the children's understandable desire to get more presents and trips.
Q. My fiance' and I have been living together for almost two years, and everybody knows it. Everybody, that is, except my grandmother and my two spinster aunts who live with her.
My mother has gone to unbelieveable lengths to keep them from finding out -- including insisting on a big fairy-tale wedding, complete with little girls throwing rose petals, that nobody else really wanted. However, we're all going along with it, determined to have the best time we can at this very expensive shindig. My friends have been told to keep their mouths shut, and my bride has promised to blush when I look at her and squeal if I touch her. I have the feeling that, in spite of all this, someone is going to let the cat out of the bag. Any suggestions?
A. Leave the reception as early as possible. When a bridal couple stays endlessly at a wedding reception, it is not only a nuisance to guests who are too polite to leave before they do, but a dead giveaway that a fancy party with all their friends is the most novel pasttime they can think of at the moment.
Q. Who cleans up at a family meal? I have two brothers and their wives and children coming for Thanksgiving dinner, as well as an aunt and some stray friends. If I were having that big a crowd for a regular dinner party I would get someone in to help, but obviously I'm not going to do that for family, both because of the expense and because I couldn't get anyone to work the holiday, anyway. I could just pile the dishes and leave them, of course, but some will insist on helping me do them right away, and I don't really relish the idea of millions of gummy plates at night, when everyone's gone home.
But I resent the idea that the women have to do the cleaning up while the men go in the family room, and I have one sister-in-law who always goes with the men when this happens, and the rest of us resent this, too.
What's the answer? In order to have a traditional Thanksgiving, do we have to have the traditional division of labor by sex? Bear in mind that if you say yes, my husband, Butterfingers, will have to carve the turkey.
A. You misread tradition. People often used the terms men and women when they really meant to describe tastes, habits and talents that, we have learned, do not properly belong to one gender or another. For example, Miss Manners still believes in the tradition of separating smokers from non-smokers after dinner, but that would be defeated by separating the ladies from the gentlemen.
The head of the family traditionally carves the turkey. Miss Manners assumes that you each occupy this position at times, and suggests that the person least likely to carve a thumb into the stuffing assume it for the day. You might also have recourse to the tradition of honoring a guest by asking him or her to perform such a ceremonial task.
The people least likely to disrupt interesting conversation by being absent from the table should clear the table between courses. If this suggests to you the entire collection of children -- well, Miss Manners, who just said she doesn't believe in assigning people tasks by sweeping categories, didn't actually say it was they.
After dinner, those who have a weakness for televised football or for dozing off while digesting unusual quantities of food should retire to a room that has well-upholstered chairs. Those who wish to critique their behavior or otherwise indulge in conviviality of a quasi-confidential nature should assemble in the kitchen.