HAVE YOU ever fantasized about being in a position so powerful that you could deal with people exactly as you feel they deserve, without worrying about retaliation? You would be so strong and safe that you need not bother with etiquette; you would be strictly on the receiving end of manners, not to mention obeisance, without having to dispense any yourself.
Miss Manners is sorry to report that there is no such position, even in Fantasyland. (Don't tell her that anything is possible in Fantasyland. Sensible people maintain some dramatic standards of plausibility, even in their dreams.) If there were, she would be the first to dangle the possibility, in exchange for a promise of good behavior en route.
If you were president of the United States, you would be continually worried--except in those moments when your mind wandered off into the economy or the national defense--about whether people liked you. If you were a monarch or a dictator who had even a smidgeon of history, you would do well to do the same.
Miss Manners has always believed that the great Victorian hypocrisy, whereby even aristocrats pretended in public to behave themselves and to care about the welfare of the masses, began when dear Prince Albert appeared from the Continent, took a look at the post-18th century profligacy of the upper classes, and inquired over breakfast and the gossip sheets, "Do those people really want a French Revolution of their own, my dear?"
Ultimately, a boss, no matter how exalted, is dependent for his position on his workers; a star, no matter how brilliant, on his fans. One can defy them, scourge them, mock them only to a point--and those who yield to the temptation rarely notice that point as it goes by. That is why we are able to have so many moral tales in which wicked people come to a satisfactorily bad end.
Miss Manners does not believe that people are ever as pliant out of fear as they are from affection. Whether what one wants them to do is to work harder, to acknowledge one's near-divinity, or just hand over their money, it is always safest to make them want to.
Don't bother asking Miss Manners how one does this on a large scale. If she knew, would she be sitting here on the porch, fanning herself, instead of having someone else do it for her?
But on an everyday scale, it means that courtesy, and the appearance of respect and consideration for others are needed in direct proportion to the number of people over whom one has power. Being beloved is the chief job requirement of the most exalted positions there are, and it is not acknowledgment of superiority, but appreciation of graciousness that prompts the sentiment.
Miss Manners is sorry if she spoiled your fantasy. She will try to compensate by assuring you that if you aim for a position in which you never need people to vote for you, to support your policies, to do any work for you, to buy tickets to your shows, to defend your life and property, to make you look good in the eyes of your own superiors, to treat you with respect, to come to your aid when you need it, to admire you, to contribute money in the form of taxes or patronage of one sort or another, to refrain from ridiculing you, to abstain from plotting ways of getting you out of your position, to support you in rising even further, or to shed a tear when you are dead--then you can probably trample on the feelings of others in relative safety.
It is still only relative safety, because some offended person may get you yet with a sideswipe. But, then, if your wildest dreams are that paltry, that might not make much difference. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q: I was taught that the objective of a dinner party is not to provide the guests with a free meal, nor does one accept an invitation just because one gets fed; therefore, one should never start a note to a hostess by thanking her for the dinner.
One should thank her for a delightful evening, mention the pleasant company, any special feature of the evening, and comment on the delicious food in some way.
A friend tells me I am wrong. He says it is the standard, accepted practice in America to mention and thank the hostess for the dinner first.
Thank you in advance.
A: For what? The words?
Yes, yes, yes, one thanks the hostess for her hospitality, not for the peas and carrots. Could you not, however, consider that your friend may be using the term dinner as short for dinner party, to refer to the event of the evening, rather than the groceries?
But if you really want to make something of it, Miss Manners must tell you that the old-fashioned rule is that one never mentioned the meal at all, the cook and the hostess having been unlikely to be the same person, even in relatively modest households. It was even considered vulgar to say "This is delicious" while at the table.
A mean purist could try refraining from noticing the food at all--and see how that goes over with a modern hostess who has spent all day with a trembling kitchen machine.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.