WHEN THE term "no frills" first appeared, Miss Manners, like so many others, was temporarily seduced into believing the it meant more efficiency and less nonsense. How it slipped her mind that nonsense is one of the great pleasures of her life, she cannot imagine.
We seem to have to entertain such a fancy at least every three decades. All of Miss Manners' dear Victorian friends were vilified for their taste by their offspring -- and don't think they are not all lolling about somewhere now, on tufted velvet sofas (among the rubber plants), laughing themselves sick at the prices their descendants are currently paying for things they scorned to inherit.
Anyway, the idea of getting rid of the nonessentials has never turned out to produce efficiency. Don't let Miss Manners get started again on the days when dear Anthony Trollope was in the postal service and the letters always arrived before breakfast.
As Miss Manners recalls, the last go-around began with an airline's offer to reduce prices by eliminating the old-fashioned, gracious practice of slapping down before each passenger a plastic tray full of reheated food accompanied by a grab bag full of cellophane containers labeled mustard, salad dressing and so on. As few people enjoyed the food and even fewer could open the little bags, the advantage might have been a substantial one had not some of those prices quietly sneaked back up.
But the no-frills fad spread.
We have no-frills shopping, in which even stores that purport to offer service mean only that You may be able to track down a clerk who will say, "Look over there" for a requested item, before turning his or her back.
We have no-frills romance, in which the offer is stated simply and immediately ("Do you want to, or don't you?") and not repeated.
We have no-frills hotel service, in which the check-in desk is cunningly hidden among trees and waterfalls so that the patron must carry his luggage to it, only to be informed that he must also carry it to the bell desk if he then wants the luxury of having someone else stand next to it in the elevator.
We have no-frills present-giving, in which the expectant receiver doesn't want to bother taking a chance on the taste or imagination of the giver, and so tries to hand over his shopping list; and the giver, who doesn't have any taste or imagination, or won't bother exerting it, doles out cash or gift certificates.
We have no-frills correspondence, in which the writers buy their statements pre-printed, or check them off on cards that offer options.
We have no-frills political exchanges, in which each person reduces his sentiments to a phrase and then affixes a bumper sticker or T-shirt stating his beliefs.
We have no-frills clothing, on which there are no frills.
We have no-frills family relationships, in which such extras as flattery, services not counted in the regular distribution of chores, and ready quantities of undeserved sympathy have been eliminated.
We have, in short, everything, in this modern life, except efficiency and frills. Miss Manners has little hope left that we will ever be able to accomplish the business of daily living with speed and accuracy. So may we please have back those frills? MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. This is no earthshaking problem, but several of us are hoping for one of your modern, sensible answers. Is it improper for ladies to put on lipstick in public after eating? It seems such a simple, natural little repair job, but one of our fellow senior citizens thinks it is unladylike.
A. Once, in a fit of modern sensibility, Miss Manners turned uncharacteristically carefree and told someone that applying lipstick, and perhaps a fluff of powder from a pretty compact, was permissible at the end of a restaurant meal, provided the subject did not take out an assortment of brushes, pots and pencils and draw an entirely new face on her head.
Well, you should have heard the earth shake after that one! Miss Manners, after being roundly taken to task by people who found this offensive, concluded that she had perhaps gotten giddy. You can imagine the shock to her system of the discovery that there were people in the world stricter than she, at least on this one little point.
In her own defense, she would like to put it on record that she was thinking of a quick dab from a traditional lipstick, and not the enormous artistic undertaking one sees nowadays, with the mouth being outlined in lip pencil, lipstick being applied with a brush, and a coat of gloss out of a pot going on top by way of the little finger.
Nevertheless, she is forced to reverse herself (a maneuver that leaves her even giddier than before) and state that yes, this is still considered offensive by many people.
Q. Which is the proper way to hold a fork when eating meat? With the curve of the tines pointed upward or downward?
A. Up, up, up. Europeans hold their forks downward, but that's because they live on the wrong side of the globe.
Q. My favorite cousin's daughter and her best friend's visit to me last week is the cause of my present unhappiness. Mary and Jill arrived from a tiny country town on the bus, and my husband and I planned a wonderful week for the two girls.
It soon became apparent that these two shy girls from the country were here to kick up their heels and have a ball, with no thought of our plans of the zoo and many other things our city has for 15-year-olds.
After four days, in which I learned that these two were capable of anything just short of delinquency, I called my cousin and asked if they could return home--not giving any of the real reasons we had for wanting them to go.
But here are a few: In asking for a napkin at a local restaurant, Jill said -- loud enough for everyone to hear -- "I didn't come down here to be her maid," and "These two oldies are weird."
They ransacked the refrigerator as we slept, and left half-filled Cokes under the bed, dripping all over the new wall-to-wall carpeting. They left the guest bathroom in worse shape than did Elvis Presley and his entourage at a Holiday Inn.
Yesterday, my cousin sent a cold letter (she is 55 and I am 57 -- my children are married and out of town) in which she rebukes us for not enjoying the "zest for living" teen-agers have today. And how "sorry" she is that we were unfair in implying malicious intent to natural, youthful fun.
I must have known this would be the end of our friendship. I have learned that in some households, teen-agers are permitted any kind of what I call rude behavior.
A. Miss Manners must warn you that she is probably not going to salvage your relationship with your formerly favorite cousin. The only way to do that would be for you to say that, yes, you probably are unused to the ways of today's teen-agers, and should have realized that you were not up to enjoying their youthful zest before you invited them.
That would stick in your throat, wouldn't it? Miss Manners hardly blames you, and must quickly point out that she offers it merely as a face-saving device for your cousin, not in any way as an assessment of the situation.
Of course those horrible girls behaved abominably, and you were quite right to cut the visit short and commendably tactful for not specifying why. Please understand that Miss Manners is in complete sympathy with you on that.
Perhaps you would have been mollified if your cousin had called you up in tears, endorsed your repulsion, and admitted that she had been utterly incapable of teaching her daughter how to behave or encouraging her to associate with those who knew.
But as that would have stuck in her throat -- and the lump would have been all the greater for its truth -- she chose, instead, to save face by attacking you. That was not a particularly nice thing to do, but neither would vilifying her own daughter have been. The correct thing for her to have done would have been to bring up her child to behave decently.
The choice is now yours. Drop the closeness or accept the false demurrals. Miss Manners admits that she would be hard put to make a decision between two such galling moves.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper. Copyright 1982, United Feature Syndicate Inc.