IT IS lovely to have a hobby, and for those of you who don't much care about stamps or butterflies, Miss Manners would like to suggest Insult Collecting.
Insult Collecting, as explained by a gentleman of Miss Manners' acquaintance who is privileged to know some notable collectors, is a hobby that requires imagination and perseverence. One cannot depend upon what one will come across by chance. Few people bother to develop and distribute insults these days, and the standard ones in general circulation are not worthy of a good collection.
The sort of obscenities people scream at one another from the protective coverings of their automobiles have become an accepted part of traffic noise, and the insults service people deliver to customers who interrupt or undertip them have long since been considered part of the service.
The successful insult collector must look for fresh sources. As one cannot depend on others to fashion original insults, one must learn to wrest insults from those who did not intend to produce them.
Your true insult collector can discover an insult to himself in the blandest behavior. One way is to fasten onto some neutral remark or gesture and re-classify it as an insult; another is to have secret rules about what you consider your due, so that people who are not aware of them have a good chance of violating them.
Let us say, for example, that you, as a collector, are entertaining a house guest. You have been providing meals, for which you are likely to be complimented and thanked. One night, the guest suggests going out for dinner, instead. This is clearly an insult to your culinary skills. If he doesn't suggest a night out, it is clearly a deliberate omission of the courtesy of reciprocity. If he pays for your meal out, he is insulting you as a host, and if he allows you to pay, he is exploiting you as a host.
You understand the idea. To a discriminating collector, any material can be made into a work of art.
Conspicuous omissions are almost too easy. Say that the person getting drinks skips you, or someone whose birthday you remembered forgets yours. An advanced collector will scorn using this as a single item. It must be given its proper setting as the focus of a division, or wing, of the collection. Such an omission must be treated as a perfect and representive specimen of a history of insults from the person who performed it, or rather didn't perform. (Remember that to a connoisseur, there is never any such thing as an unintended insult. Even a subconscious insult must be brought forward as being an active form of thoughtlessness.)
Best of all, because it requires the most talent, is the insult that the collector can discover in the word or action that was ostensibly meant to be polite or kind. To find an insult in what appeared to be a compliment, or in the choice of a present, or in the offer of assistance is beyond the reach of the novice, but Miss Manners assures you that she has seen sophisticated collectors reduce entire occasions in their honor to a heap of insults.
Nor is finding the insult the collector's only job. There are strict rules and ethics concerning the announcement of the discovery. To call out, "Hey, what about me--don't I get a drink?" would be unthinkable. Even the sarcastic, "Thanks a lot!" is gauche.
The correct procedure is not to pounce on the insult at all, but to withdraw, immediately upon encountering it, into stiff silence. That this is not likely to be noticed by the unaware insult-giver or by onlookers is not a drawback. On the contrary, the longer it is before someone finally says "What's the matter?" the better.
The reply to this must be "Oh, nothing." It must be said in such a way as to produce another question, "Oh, come on, I can see something's the matter; tell me." The idea is to keep the person pleading as long as possible. When you finally have to admit what it is, you can start another round by replying to protestions of "I didn't mean it" with a resigned, "No, I'm sure you didn't," which implies that such insults are so habitual that the insulter probably didn't have to give it much thought.
As with any hobby, the more difficult and time-consuming you make things, the more fun it is. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. Many of my 30-plus-year-old women friends are now expecting their first babies. I have been invited to a number of showers recently to celebrate this happiness, but I am puzzled as to how to sign the note card I've enclosed with the gift. I'm a working woman who pools my salary with my husband's, so do I sign the card "Gloria and Michael"? Or do I sign only my name, because I was the one who was invited to the shower--and admittedly shopped for and selected the gift? Also, should I include the name of my child who's a prospective friend of the new baby?
A. Perhaps you had better word the message of congratulations cautiously, in case your child and the expected child of your friend don't get along.
Better yet, just sign your own name and do not attempt to include people who were not invited to the shower. The following facts are irrelevant: that you work, that your friends are over 30, that your money is pooled with your husband's, that you did the shopping and selected the present, and that you are promoting a friendship with the next generation, sight unseen. What remains, for your guidance, is the fact that the party was not for couples or families, but for individuals.
Q. What are your opinions about widows and widowers marrying? Society frowns on this, usually.
Some of them haven't any living children, and the only care outside of marriage is hired help or senior citizen apartment houses. If there are living children, they usually do not help the marriage. Experts say if widows and widowers marry as senior citizens, most of them die within two years. If they both have property and money, legal contracts should be signed by both before marriage, and even then, stress is quite common.
Sex before marriage by teen-agers keeps their marriages from lasting. Senior citizens should understand thoroughly about each other for their marriages to hold.
A. Please point out to Miss Manners those people whom you identify as Society and Experts. Her first advice to you is to drop them from your list of prospective wedding guests. People who believe that marriage is fatal are no fun to have around, especially if they keep frowning.
The only rule Miss Manners knows concerning the marriages of senior citizens from 21 on up, is that permission is not required from their parents or anyone else. What consenting adults do in private, before marriage, about their wills, is also up to them.
Many elderly people do keep their finances legally separate when making late marriages, and do retain their previous connections as heirs. Most will also listen to the opinions of trusted and disinterested relatives and friends when contemplating marriage.
But if they are not old enough to weigh all this and then make their own judgments, when, pray, do they expect to be?Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.