IS IT RUDE to be rich? Does this state require constant apology from any sensitive person so unfortunate as to be caught in it?
Is etiquette a luxury item, the opposite of which is kindness? Is its sole function to humiliate the poor?
Miss Manners does not really care for any thinking that equates manners with money or the lack of it. It seems to her that there is an unlimited supply of vulgarity in the world, and that anyone can partake of it freely, and most people do. What politeness she sees is apparently randomly distributed at different income levels.
Nevertheless, she recognizes that many aspects of etiquette are directly or indirectly related to a wealth-based social structure, and that they are often used to judge the worth of individuals, monetary and otherwise.
These standards are applied by both rich and poor. The possession of a good heart does not count for much, in any society, in a person who licks his dinner plate. Presumptions are universally made about the social value of people who ignore conventional rituals of drinking wine because they prefer to take theirs outdoors from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags.
It is true that many of these forms were invented by the affluent (because they could afford to be genteel), and in some cases, the reason was indeed to reinforce class barriers, rather than to "make everyone feel comfortable." Thus, in times and societies where social mobility is possible, there is always a proliferation of new rules and of guides to these rules, which explains what Miss Manners is doing among you.
But should a democratic people eschew such elitist forms? Only if you also spurn all of the other goodies and niceties of life, from cars and stereo equipment to education, because you refuse to enjoy something that everyone else does not have.
Manners differ from luxury dry goods in that they can be learned for free. Why not have the best when you can afford it?
To the extent that they are used as passwords to prevent the merely rich from entering the upper classes (which consist of the children of the previous generation of merely rich whom the generation before that did not succeed in keeping out), they can also be used to get through the gates. Acting rich is a well-known first step toward getting rich.
But it is for no such crass purpose that Miss Manners recommends that everyone enjoy the very best manners and pass them on to the next generation, all at no cost to the consumer. It is simply that there is nothing you can buy that soothes and embellishes life so easily.
The most satisfactory of these, such as the rituals of greeting and introducing and thanking and apologizing, require no expensive equipment. Resistance to them is mere proletarian snobbishness.
When artifacts are required, one masters the skills as one encounters the objects. It is not difficult. If you can use a metal knife and fork, you can use silver ones, and even successive forks with specialized functions. One learns the rituals of the society one participates in, as one learns the jargon and behavior of the profession one chooses, and resisting either only hurts oneself.
It is also fraudulent as a populist stance. Miss Manners does not notice the same people who refuse to acquire genteel manners spurning the really costly dry goods--the fancy gold watches, the furs, the limousines, the designer clothes--when they can get them. Actually, doing so would be the thriftiest possible way of displaying the best manners.
Refraining from all ostentation is, after all, behavior that the top and bottom of the social scale have in common. For different reasons, perhaps.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. I have a nephew who is delightful and has charming manners. However, he has regrettably become enamored of a young woman beneath his station. The young woman (I cannot call her "lady") delights in recording offensive but humorous (in her mind) messages on my dear nephew's telephone answering device. How can I convey to my nephew the shock I feel upon hearing these vulgarisms without sending him straight to the woman's defense--and her arms?
A. You are indeed correct that any attempt to drive your nephew away from his friend would have the opposite effect. Why do you not, therefore, reverse directions? Naturally, if you criticized her, he would defend her. What you must do is to say what a lovely person she is, and suggest that he offer to help her with her unfortunate taste lapses. If that doesn't do it, nothing will.
Q. I am married in name only, if you know what I mean. If you don't, I'll tell you. Why not? Everybody else in the world seems to know all about my affairs--although they aren't my affairs, exactly.
I seem to be the only female in the world that my husband isn't interested in sleeping with. He says he respects me, though. I suppose it's a distinction. You should see some of the females he isn't so respectful to.
We are staying together for the usual reasons. We have three children, and the memory of one we lost. I have never been on the job market and wouldn't know how to start. And in some ways we get along, strange as that may sound.
Through the years, I have gotten rid of most of my resentment (I think), but now I mostly envy him. I don't really mean that I would like to act like an alley cat, too, but I would like to know what it's like to have some of the romance in my life that he gives around pretty freely to others.
I am not a snoop, but after all these years of living with (apparently) the world's greatest lover, I have seen something about how it works. The secret meetings, the little presents, the scribbled love notes, the hushed up phone calls that are supposed to be in some kind of code I couldn't understand (what does he think I think "You know I do" means?), and so on. They say women are the romantic ones, who always want to live in some sort of a fantasy dream, but this man lives this way all the time. When the love stuff peters out with one woman (because she starts to expect something more serious), he starts from the beginning with another.
How can I show that I, too, am available for a nice man who wants some love in his life, but not a serious entanglement? I have been married for so long that even though I'm a fairly attractive woman, I believe, nobody would dream of approaching me because I seem so respectable.
You would think that since everybody knows about my husband's activities, they would also guess that I would not be adverse to having some fun of my own. But it doesn't work that way. Everybody with whom we go to parties treats me very carefully and too kindly, if you know what I mean. My question is, if they really feel sorry for me, why don't they do something about it by livening up my life?
A. It is unjust, but nevertheless true, that the role of the deceived spouse is an unattractive one. In your case, however, deceived is hardly the word--so perhaps you can fashion your position into something more consistant with your interests.
We live in socially bizarre times, so you are only limited by your imagination. Suppose, for example, you and your husband had agreed, formally, to separate, but you had decided, in a friendly way, to continue living in the same house. (Notice the use of the word separate: We are in semantic never-never land here.) Miss Manners has heard of couples who are actually divorced having such arrangements.
Try confiding that to a few blabby friends. Doesn't the independent, unconventional and modern flavor it gives to your position sound more attractive that the part of the long-suffering wife of a faithless husband?
Naturally, this will work better in fresh social circles (such as the Divorced Fathers' Club that you volunteer to organize at your children's school) than in the ones you have been traveling with your husband. If you must continue to go out socially with your husband, take care to show towards him an air of cheerful camaraderie. It would be nice if he returned this; it seems to be the least he can do. If you are seen to exchange a roguish smile, or a giggly whisper, particularly after one of you has been flirting with someone else, no one will suppose that you are having an inter-marital affair. They will, instead, declare what a "civilized" couple you are, a word that has come to mean "available to immoral advances."