THE SOCIAL ability to ignore things that are better ignored has nearly been lost in this time, when we are all, as one of dear Christopher Fry's characters once remarked of another, masters of the obvious. Miss Manners would like to mount a campaign for reviving the art of ignoring, if only she could think of something to call it besides ignor-ance.
The motto of this effort shall be "Let's let that pass." Nothing is allowed to pass without comment these days, not even--no, no, Miss Manners is not going to fall into the error of admitting that she has ever noticed such a thing. The idea is to put many things back in that area in which they belong, called Beneath Notice. Geographically, that is an even more remote location than Beneath Contempt.
There are two general categories of things that are deserving of being ignored--Things That Ought Never to Have Happened, and Things That Ought Not to Have Been Observed. You will notice some overlapping in these categories. Try not to.
The test is whether civilization, or its immediate representatives, will truly profit from a discussion of the observed phenomenon. Naturally, some judgment is involved.
Take, for example, the cough. It is curious that the sneeze is socially recognized, but the cough is not. As one has nothing to say when another coughs, equivalent to blessings bestowed on the sneeze, everyone pretends not to have noticed it. Miss Manners could have chosen even less socially acceptable physical manifestations, but you understand the idea. That matter of judgment would come in if, say, it were a ruptured appendix, rather than a cough, in which case it cannot safely be ignored, however polite that may seem at the time.
Or let us take the unwelcome romantic overture. Lewd suggestions and worse must be protested, but those who approach slowly may be gently checked, provided that they cooperate in desisting when their advances are ignored. It may be safely assumed that a person who fails to notice being paid such attentions is not all atwitter to receive them.
Mistakes in behavior or errors in conversation are not generally as in need of correction as those who know better like to think. More often than not, it is possible, as well as polite, to fail to perceive that another person has made a fool of himself or told a story wrong. If the other person is one's spouse, this congenital blindness and deafness to small transgressions can be a major contribution towards sustaining a happy marriage.
In less intimate relationships, this applies to the unfortunate confession, later regretted by the indiscreet person, whose remorse usually takes the form of blaming the listener. Bitter remarks about someone closer than you to the complainer--a spouse, say, or a child--should be met with a bland look indicating that you think a pleasantry was intended but don't quite understand it.
Accidental exposures of privacy need not, as people seem to think, be acknowledged. The convention by which people agree not to have perceived what they obviously could not fail to have witnessed is extremely useful.
People who work close together in an office will benefit from pretending to be totally oblivious to what their immediate neighbors say on the telephone or what papers they have out on their desks. And for the sneaks who use poached information to their own advantage, the least that can be done is to refrain from chiming in with comments acknowledging the possession of purloined material.
One should even refrain from breaking in when overhearing strangers exchange misinformation, unless one can be of immediate assistance, as, for instance, if the question is about when to get off the bus. Private conversations in public places are officially inaudible.
Miss Manners would like to make a special plea for ignoring the mechanics of social behavior. Nothing annoys her more than to be told smugly, "I noticed you were making eye contact with me," or "I could tell a lot about you from the way you shook hands."
Such things simply cry out to be ignored.
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. Tonight at the dinner table, my father said it was all right to eat baked chicken with your fingers. But my stepmother said it wasn't all right. So we (the four kids) want to know who is right. My brother agrees with my father, but we three agree with my stepmother. If we lose (stepmother and three kids) we have to wash the cars. But if they (Daddy and brother) lose they will take us out for pizza and ice cream.
A. First wash the cars, and then go out for pizza and ice cream. There is something wrong with each of your arguments. (Miss Manners could have put it that each of you has a point that is correct, but in that case, the cars would stay dirty and you would have liver and onions for dinner.)
It is not how the chicken is cooked that is important here; although there are some messy chicken dishes that can never be eaten with the fingers, baked chicken is up for grabs, so to speak. The deciding factor is where the chicken is being eaten.
At the family dinner table, other highly informal meals or picnics, chicken is generally eaten with the fingers. In restaurants other than the least formal, fast-food type, or at meals with company at your house or when you go out, chicken is eaten with the fork and knife, even if it is cooked in such a way--deep fried, for example--to make this a struggle for all concerned, including the chicken.
Q. Please tell me the correct way to address a married couple when both members are physicians. The old method, "Dr. and Mrs.," is entirely unacceptable to our daugter-in-law, and it would please me if I can give her an acceptable alternative.
A. Tradition does evolve--slowly, as language does, and with some protesting wildly at every change, but it does. At one time, it was considered rather sweet for a lady to have separate professional and social identities, although you may well ask (and if you don't, your daughter-in-law will) why this did not apply to the gentleman, as well. In any case, while some doctors use the form you mention, a newer one, "The Doctors Fixit," or, when the maiden name is retained, "Dr. Janet Cutupand Dr. Frank Fixit" is more common and just as correct.