IN THE social symbolism of the late Victorian era, it was understood that a lady who held her fan in her left hand while apparently accidentally exchanging glances with a strange gentleman in, for example, a public ballroom, was desirous of making his acquaintance, and that efforts on his part to nab someone who could introduce them properly would not be unrewarded.
Nowadays, of course, one can achieve the same effect by running around town in a T-shirt with "TRY ME -- I'M TERRIFIC" written across the, uh, bodice.
Perhaps it is not exactly the same. Miss Manners is vaguely aware that something has been lost in the translation. It is true that a button that says "KISS ME!" is clearer than a fan with the tip held to the lips, which meant the same thing, but Miss Manners is not sure that she likes living in a world where everything is quite that clear.
The value of social props, was, indeed, their ambiguity. In a matter as serious as flirtation, it was considered essential to be able to make a complete denial if things did not turn out as hoped. Carrying the fan in front of the face with the right hand meant "Follow me," but if the fan-shielded lady happened to walk smack into her husband while her instructions were being obeyed, nobody could prove a thing. (It was also useful to know then that a fan drawn across the forehead meant, "Careful -- we're being watched.")
Now that ambiguity is an endangered species, we have abandoned most of our props. The gloves that could be smacked across the face to say, "You want to make something of it?" The gentleman's hat that could be tipped to say, "Why, hello there"; the severe hat that a young lady could use to say, "Take me seriously"; and the outrageous hat that a matron could use to say, "I still have a girlish heart": All gone. The message of a lace handkerchief floating to a gentleman's feet is not the same as that of a deliberately dropped wad of Kleenex thudding to the floor.
Still, we do have a prop in modern life, for purposes of modern flirtation, such as it is, and Miss Manners had better explain its use. One day these nuances will be as forgotten as the differences between the wide open fan ("Wait for me"), a shut one ("You have changed") and one that is being snapped open and shut ("You are cruel").
Our prop is the book.In a public place, such as an airplane or a museum, an open book, being intently read, means, "I am not available." But an open book on the lap, when the head is tilted upwards and there is a dreamy expression in the eyes, means, "I am willing to listen to what you have to offer before I make up my mind whether or not I want to know you."
If the hands are folded over the exposed pages, so that the subject of the book cannot be seen, an interested party may open with, "What are you reading?" But allowing the title or a representative page to be seen saves misunderstandings because the nature of the book carries a message, too.
Literary classic or scholarly work: "Don't bother me unless you have an education."
Current world affairs: "You must be someone who is concerned about serious matters."
Current fiction: "You must be au courant, but soulful."
Guidebook to place of current location or destination: "I am a stranger open to suggestions."
Guidebook to remote place: "Go away -- I'm planning my honeymoon or family vacation."
Material related to a particular occupation: "I am a substantial person."
Psychology or self-improvement book: "One kind word and I'm yours."
Erotic literature: "Kind words are not necessary."
MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. A recent death in my immediate family, caused by a drunken driver, and my new awareness to the social problem of alcoholism and drunken driving have prompted me to seek advice concerning my upcoming wedding.
As you know, at most wedding receptions the liquor flows endlessly and most of the guests get quite drunk. I would like to avoid this by serving as little alcohol as possible, without sacrificing the enjoyment of my guests.
I do want a champagne toast for my groom and me, but how do I keep my guests satisfied throughout the rest of the reception? Can you suggest some alternatives? How about serving a champagne punch during the cocktail hour? What could be served during the meal and afterwards during the dancing?
My fiance and my family aren't heavy drinkers and will go along with whatever pleases me. Most of the guests are close relatives and friends, but I know a small handful might cause me trouble. Should I let this leak on the grapevine so that people know what to expect?
A. Miss Manners hopes that we have not quite reached the stage where most guests at most weddings will cause trouble if they are not allowed to get roaring drunk. But she does not doubt that there will always be grumblers where liquor does not "flow endlessly."
It is a fact, although many people do not realize it, that liquor is not a legal requirement for the solemnization of a marriage. You may serve as much or little of it as you choose. If you want to serve champagne with the wedding cake, you may certainly serve a light champagne punch -- or an alcohol-free fruit punch -- the rest of the evening.
Given your experience, Miss Manners would think you would prefer having a few grumblers to risking drunken drivers.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.