SOME TIME ago, Miss Manners let out a gentle sigh with the weariness of being asked (because she happens to earn a respectable living in the etiquette business) whether she wasn't watching everyone's manners so that they had better be careful in her presence. Suspecting that every occupation has its conversational hazards, she asked her Gentle Readers to set down some things they find tiresome to hear when they own up to their jobs.
"I'm a police officer in Toledo, Ohio," one wrote. "When I'm introduced to people at a party, the host inevitably will say, 'Hey, everyone, you better watch this guy -- he's a cop.' Or point to different people who are complete strangers to me and say 'I want this guy arrested, he's really bad.' People laugh, but it's not so funny for me, since the rest of the night my whole topic of conversation will pertain to police work. I normally leave early."
"I'm a high school math teacher," wrote another Gentle Reader, "and when I reveal that sordid fact, I invariably get one or more of the following tacky responses: 1. 'The worst teacher I ever had was a math teacher. She's the reason I can't do any type of math today.' 2. 'I never could understand that stuff.' 3. 'Whatever happened to teacher dedication? Teachers used to teach just for the joy it brings.' 4. 'I personally feel that there isn't a single teacher worth his salt in the public school system today.'"
"I'm a dental assistant," another letter went, "and my pet peeve is folks who at a party, when learning of my occupation, seemingly must put an index finger in their own mouths trying to explain (while they point out) their dental problem. This is especially stupid of men who later may ask to see me again. Why? Well, if they think I want to put my lips or, God forbid, my tongue near theirs when they've just told me what a wreck it is, they're nuts!"
Passing on the experience of a sociology professor, a reader reports that "he said, 'I never tell people I meet on the bus that I'm a sociologist. Too often, that leads to questions such as 'If socialism is so wonderful, why is the suicide rate so high in Sweden?'"
"I am a chemist," reports another Gentle Reader, "and when upon their inquiry I so inform a new acquaintance, I am told, 'Oh! All I know about chemistry is that water is aitch two oh.' (This happens to be wrong, H2O is steam and (H2O)n is water.) Or, I hear, 'Golly, I took chemistry long ago in high school/college/university and I barely passed the course; you must be awfully smart.' The latter part of this response is, of course, correct, but I am very proud of my humility and cannot therefore acknowledge their good judgment -- nor can I with the first-mentioned response, undertake to correct the error for much the same reasons."
An artist wrote that "People often make the mistake of first alluding to the source of the artist's income, such as 'Have you sold many paintings?', 'Have you been published?', 'Do you perform many concerts?' or, worse, 'Do you have another job as well?'
"Another way to distress an artist is to ask her/him to describe her/his work. If this were possible, there would be no point in shedding blood, sweat and tears to produce the work in the first place . . . Last but not least, the worst offense is to divulge to the artist that you, too, often paint (sing, dance, write, etc.) as a hobby. I understand that it is meant in good will, but really, do you tell the president of the bank that you often assume the role of banker in Monopoly games? Instead of giving camaraderie, you may be insulting the artist by reducing his livelihood to an idle Sunday afternoon amusement."
Similarly, a writer reports being told things like, "Oh, I have an 8-year-old niece who writes, too."
There was one librarian who reported being told, "Funny, you don't look like a librarian," and another who suggests "that you not say, 'Oh, it must be nice to work in a library -- I've always loved to read.' Inhabitants of neither part of library service -- reference or technical services -- spend their time sitting around reading. Reference librarians hunt through books looking for information about other people's interests, and the cataloguer skims parts of books to find their subjects so they can be put on the shelf correctly.
"Unfortunately, I have yet to think of a clever comeback for the usual inane remark about my work. Perhaps you should have asked for this also."
The reason Miss Manners did not make this request is that she is not a believer in the clever comeback when it is intended to embarrass someone who has merely made a conventionally boring remark. She did receive some smart responses to "What do you do?" and feels duty bound to pass them on:
"The very best I can."
"I fritter away my time."
"I think, therefore I am." (Credit was given to dear Mr. Descartes by the person who recommends this.)
It is Miss Manners' hope that rather than increasing the amount of tedium in the world, we reduce it by dismissing from our minds the first trite remark that pops in upon hearing a stranger's occupation. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. If a box at the theater has four unassigned seats positioned two in front of two, and my companion and I arrive at the theater before the persons holding tickets to the other two seats, should we sit front and back or take the two front seats?
A. A gentleman does not sit in the front row of a box. This is a very old rule, but before you scream unpleasant (and untrue) epithets at Miss Manners for invoking it, permit her to explain to you some of the facts of life in boxes.
1. One can see just as well from the second row as the first, because the chairs are movable and may be positioned for an unobstructed view.
2. From the orchestra seats, one can see only the front row of the box. Ladies' clothes are more entertaining than gentlemen's, and therefore to put the gentlemen in front would block the view of other patrons during intermissions.
The answer, then, is that if you are two ladies, you may sit in front, but mixed couples occupy one side only of the box.
Q. I recently took employment in the file room of a law firm. I have been answering the phone by saying, "File room, my name , may I help you?"
I have been informed by someone, who is not my supervisor, that using "May I help you?" is in some way demeaning to the person that is calling. My feeling is that it is courteous to offer this assistance. Almost any store or restaurant you enter will greet you in similar fashion. Who is correct?
A. "May I help you?" is demeaning? Ah, so that explains why every time Miss Manners enters a store or a restaurant, the service people either continue chatting with one another, or turn their backs on her in silence. They are only trying to be courteous and refrain from demeaning her by suggesting that she needs assistance.
Well, she does. So do the people who call the file room. Please continue to offer to help people, including whoever gave you this advice -- who badly needs to be helped out of the etiquette business.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.