Q: My husband and I are newlyweds in the process of setting up housekeeping. Our problem, not so surprisingly, centers around our friends and acquaintances, and just how to deal with their inquiries as to the quality, source--and, you guessed it, even the price of some of our newly acquired household purchases.
Please don't misunderstand me, Miss Manners--I have many old friends with whom I gladly share shopping tips from time to time, as they do with me. But when social conversation centers around the acquisition, care and feeding of material goods, I feel as if my home is being "cased" with expertise worthy of an insurance appraiser--or at least a moderately competent burglar.
My husband tends to shrug this nonsense off as a byproduct of the hard economic times, comparing it to phenomena such as designer polo shirts, or amateur analyses of fluctuations in mortgage rates. On my part, I usually attempt to gently change the subject when questions get too pointed. But when two casual acquaintances who had been our dinner guests last night asked me not only where I got my meat, but how much it ran a pound, I knew that the situation had reached such grave dimensions that the intercession of Miss Manners was required.
My parents raised me to believe that talk of financial matters was in the worst possible taste. Is there any polite but unequivocal way to deal with these overly curious souls, or should I resign to leaving price tags and laminated invoices out for public inspection?
A: Your parents were quite right, as parents always are. Social discussions of money, on a personal level, are now ubiquitious, but still vulgar. (On a general level, it is permissible. Thus, one can still open a conversation, although perhaps not an interesting one, with "How about this economy, huh?")
Miss Manners is reminded of the similar conversational ban on the subject of sex. As the restrictions against mentioning this matter in polite society were relaxed, a lot of people thought, "Oh, boy, things are going to get interesting now." But did they? Is the world a more exciting or amusing place because people freely throw their personal triumphs and dysfunctions out for discussion?
Little did we realize, all atwitter at the possibility of getting into forbidden realms, that the reason our ancestors decreed that there would be no talk of money or sex at table was to keep us all from nodding off into our soup as our dinner partners described the terms of their mortgages and their divorces.
However, here is Miss Manners railing off at you for something you already knew, when your problem is that you are the only one who does, in a set of constant violators of good taste.
What a pity it is that Miss Manners does not allow people to counter rudeness with rudeness. Otherwise, you could have great fun fingering the cloth on their clothes and guessing at the authenticity of their jewelry.
Instead, you must simply keep saying, "Why, I don't remember" at every inquiry, until they get weary of hearing it. Occasionally, you may permit yourself to take their questions as implied criticism, and rattle them by asking, for example in the case of the meat, "Why? Is there something the matter with it?"
And every once in a while, when you cannot bear it any longer, you may say sweetly, after the 15th time you have claimed not to remember a price, "Oh, dear, you make me feel like a terrible housekeeper. I wish I had kept a detailed accounts book, so I could show you everything you want to know."