THE SIMPLE rule that one must never speak to anyone to whom one has not been properly introduced does not seem to Miss Manners to be currently enforceable. These are people who desperately want to speak to those to whom they have not been properly introduced.
Some of them want to say, "How about it" to perfect strangers, and others want to say, "This is a stick-up." Miss Manners does not approve, and sincerely hopes that well-bred people will refuse to acknowledge any such remarks.
Nevertheless, she concedes that some adjustments are in order, if only because hardly anyone knows how to perform a proper introduction any more, and we will soon otherwise inhabit a silent globe.
The old rule went beyond the mere necessity of introductions to the heart of the matter, which is that everyone is not necessarily anxious to make new acquaintances all the time. (This was before group therapy came up with the patently absurd notion that all one needs, in order to like any individual, is to understand him.) Thus, people who were introduced to each other only because they had called on a mutual friend at the same time, pretended not to have been when they next met. And it was considered polite to make sure that an introduction would be agreeable to both people before one made it.
You are about to object that this sounds downright unfriendly. Well, yes. But friendship seems to be the least of what people are offering one another in the streets. Miss Manners herself was rather shaken when, in the course of a single recent day, one strange man remarked on her dress and then asked how much she had paid for it, and another, on a bus, inquired when she got in, whether she worked downtown and, when the bus had reached a residential area, whether she lived nearby.
The motivation for such unwarranted comments is a mystery to her. You can imagine that Miss Manners does not appear to be a tender young thing eager for romance and not fastidious about where it can be found; and even if she were, no lady is pleased at evidence that she seems so very open to suggestion, as it were. The idea that ladies should be flattered by unsolicited attentions is a male fallacy. Most women are aware that it is not irresistible nubility that provokes assaults, but that children and the elderly are as likely or more so to be molested.
But here we are, straying absent-mindedly into violence, just as in the movies, when all Miss Manners meant to discuss was idle conversation. If you must produce it, she asks you to show your good faith by confining it to general observations, such as "What a beastly day," "Your baby is adorable," or "Is this your wallet?" that may be taken up or left alone, easily, depending on the receptiveness of the person addressed.
Her chief point is that no one need respond, and it is certainly not a cause for embarrassment to refuse the attentions of strangers, no matter how apparently harmlessly meant. The exception is a direct request for reasonable assistance, such as an inquiry for directions; these must be courteously answered to the best of one's ability.
The unreasonable query should be completely ignored, if not repudiated with an icy look and a change in posture indicating that one is protecting oneself against further offense. Kindly people often have trouble doing this, even when they have been rudely addressed, but Miss Manners assures them that it is the correct thing to do.
If one wishes to discourage general remarks, such as are described above, one gives the speaker an absent smile--the lips curve slightly, while remaining closed, but the eyes stare in puzzled disbelief--and says nothing.
Now, of course, you want to know what to do if you perceive the opening as harmless and even agreeable, and wish to encourage it. Well, you say, "Yes, isn't it a beastly day?", just as if you were in a drawing room and had been properly introduced, and proceed from there. But you will have to excuse Miss Manners if she turns quietly away. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. Our 6-year-old daughter hugs and kisses her "boyfriend" with great frequency and gusto. As I recall, I did the same thing when I was 6 years old, and my mother told me I shouldn't do it. I feel I should tell my daughter the same thing, but I cannot decide what the appropriate "reason" is. Any suggestions?
A. Aren't you fortunate that Miss Manners is not a psychoanalyst, and has not the slightest interest in discussing your daughter's psycho-sexual development--or yours either, for that matter.
We do not hug and kiss others, with great frequency and gusto, in social circumstances, because it is not done. Isn't that enough of a reason? If you want something stronger, how about "because it isn't quite nice"?
You will get into great trouble with your child if you lead her to believe that logic is a requirement for all manners (what is the logic of saying "Good morning" on a rainy day?), but just between you and Miss Manners, people get very annoyed after a while at being hugged and kissed publicly, no matter how much enthusiasm they may show at the beginning. Even an adult male in love will rebel if, for example, his wife goes after him in such a fashion in public indefinitely, and a presumably 6-year-old boy is going to be less judicious about how he signifies his wish that she stop.
If Miss Manners were in the therapy business, she would wonder why you call this boy your daughter's "boyfriend," thus superimposing adult expectations on what probably started as an innocent attachment. As she is not in such a trade, she will simply tell you to cut it out.
Q. My problem concerns a dear friend. She is attractive, articulate and intelligent, always neatly groomed, self-assured and pleasant. Unfortunately, she is a smoker and therein lies the problem.
Oftentime I observe her with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Sometimes she drops ashes on the floor or table. She has not (that I know of) burned herself or her clothes--yet. I'm sure she will.
Even worse, she walks down the street smoking a cigarette. In fall and winter, she does this while wearing gloves. (She claims the air is too dirty in the city to wear gloves in the spring and summer, when she would wear only white ones.)
A passerby in an automobile once yelled at her for walking down the street smoking with gloves on! Even this public chastisement did nothing to discourage this decadent behavior.
My friend is a devoted reader of your column, and I know she would pay close attention to anything you would say on this subject, and would even desist immediately from engaging in this disgraceful display if you told her to. She is only hurting herself and embarrassing those around her. Please discuss this soon, as I consider this a serious behavioral problem.
A. Miss Manners would be more flattered at this appeal if she did not find herself, as an arbiter of good manners, in the company of people who shout etiquette advice from passing automobiles. Will everyone please clear out of the act so that Miss Manners may do her job?
That includes all those who wish to speak against, or in favor of, the practice of smoking. The smoking issue is so emotional these days, that it is nearly impossible to hold a discussion on the rules of smoking without getting into questions of the inherent rights of smokers and nonsmokers. It is as if people couldn't understand the difference between a bridal couple's right to consummate their marriage and the question of whether they should do this at the altar. Or if the unwilling witnesses claimed the right to prohibit their doing it anywhere.
Where were we? Surely not where we seem to be. Oh, yes, smoking.
Smoking rules worked perfectly well until it was perceived that smoking would become universal. When ladies did not smoke, they saw to it that gentlemen who did kept the habit confined to places and occasions that could hardly be more polluted anyway, such as billiards rooms and stag dinners.
Then ladies took up smoking themselves, and although some rules were added--the first being that a lady never smoked on the street--most regulations were abolished. Let us now get back to the old rules, substituting the categories of smokers and nonsmokers for those formerly called gentlemen and ladies.
Like eating and drinking, smoking is never done in a public place, such as a store, church, hospital or elevator, unless it is expressly allowed, as in the lobby of a theater or a smoking car on a train, and it is never done with gloves on. Unlike eating and drinking, it is not done at table without the permission of the hostess and those seated nearby.
Whether there are ashtrays about is a good indication of whether smoking is offensive to one's hosts. But there is nothing wrong with asking--and nothing wrong, on the part of the person who is asked, with replying politely, "Actually, I would prefer if you didn't." The answer is "Certainly." No further discussion is permitted on either side.
It is also the obligation of a smoker, no less than of anyone who has the habit of eating, to be tidy. Getting ashes on oneself or someone else's furniture or rug is in the same social category as dribbling food on one's clothes or overturning drinks on the floor.
Q. I am a prospective father, puzzled as to what to say to relatives and close friends when I call them from the hospital. When the children of my first marriage were born, the announcement was "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!" Now, thanks to modern science, we have known and told people for a long time that it's going to be a boy. What do I say -- "Justin's arrived at last!"?
A. That sounds to Miss Manners as of his flight had been delayed leaving London. Couldn't you say, "The baby's born! We're calling him Justin."? Such announcements are supposed to carry some element of surprise. If you have already given away the name, as well as the gender, you had better skip quickly to a physical description of the baby (which needn't be detailed, or even accurate, as it is well known that newborns change like kaleidoscopes).