Q: How would one tactfully acknowledge -- dare we say celebrate? -- the day on which one's close friend enters the fourth dance of life? This quandary occurs in light of this younger friend's excruciating -- though we assume well-meant -- joy at our having experienced the same bittersweet event mere months prior to her own delicate arrival.

We hesitate to gauchely proclaim the usual sentiments at this sensitive hour, but certainly, Miss Manners, some mention must be made of the onset of her matronly reign, don't you agree?

A: As Miss Manners understands it, your friend, under the guise of conviviality, took care to make you feel washed up at the age of 40, and you wish to do the same for her.

Miss Manners herself was about 12 years of age when she first noticed that the people over 40 seemed to be having all the fun -- at least Miss Manners' ideas of fun, even then -- and subsequent decades of observation have done nothing to change her mind. She has always therefore been puzzled at the panic with which people regard the closing of a period of life chiefly characterized, in the lives of most people, by worries and blunders.

But whatever the reason for this tradition of declaring life finished just when one has gotten the hang of it, it is kept going by just the attitude you make clear from the tone of your letter. If you wish thoroughly to impress your friend with the gloomy aspects of her birthday, you cannot do better than to celebrate it with that blend of skittishness and pretended tact in the face of disaster.

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.