The great art of hedging is, in Miss Manners' opinion, an indispensable part of the social repertoire. Life is full of questions, from "You don't remember me, do you?" to "Where were you half the night?" that require graceful hedging. You might make the point that people have no business asking questions to which the obvious answers are not likely to delight them, but as a great many people seem unable to control themselves, hedging is a necessity.

The general rule is that if the truth is unacceptable and lying not only immoral but unsafe, it is an occasion to hedge. One can lead a blameless life and still, because of an imperfect memory or a respectable desire for privacy, need to spend a great deal of it hedging.

As hedging is nearly always done in reply to direct questioning, it takes the form of an answer. There are three kinds: the uninformative answer, the irrelevant answer and the all-purpose answer.

Take that ubiquitous question "When are you two ever going to get married?" This is almost classically designed to produce the minimum of information with the maximum in hurt feelings, and there is no satisfactory non-hedging answer. Even "August seventh" is not a good answer, as it will reveal that the questioned has not been included in the wedding plans, and anything else, including all those smart retorts that are springing to your mind, is rude.

The uninformative hedge would be "Well, possibly, when the time is right." The irrelevant hedge is something like "Did you hear that the Hodgkinses are back together again?" and the all-purpose answer is "Ah, marriage. A serious business, but full of wonderful possibilities."

The truly determined and unpleasant interrogator will of course, reply, "Well?" This, for the hedger, is the tricky part.

The rule to remember here is that a good hedger behaves as if the question has been answered by his hedge, the subject has exhausted itself, and it is time to move on, which he does, by saying, "What are your children doing these days?" or "Which do you think is the best home computer?"

Let us try it again. What do you say when someone asks, "What did you pay for your house?"

1. "I guess it was a pretty fair price."

2. "It's a really interesting neighborhood--we're finding out all kinds of things about it."

3. The real estate market is really something these days, isn't it?"

Once more. The person who eagerly pursues his own social doom by challenging you to remember him can be handled with hedges:

1. "You're teasing me."

2. "I just saw someone I haven't seen in years."

3. "Memory's a funny thing, isn't it?"

But what then? You are supposed to switch subjects, but having successfully hedged your failure to remember your interlocutor, you are now expected to proceed on the basis of acquaintance. This second-level hedge should consist of a remark so vague as to be equally suitable for someone you ate with last night and one you haven't seen in decades. Generally, it is along the lines of "Well, how are things?" But Miss Manners is indebted for the best version to dear Benjamin Disraeli, who developed it in his later years to cope with memory lapses.

"I get over it this way," he was quoted as saying. "I always say 'How is the old complaint?' for most people have something; and while they are answering I have time to collect my thoughts and recall the name."

Q.Since solid sterling silver is so expensive, I suggested to my daughter, who is filling out her bridal registry, that maybe she should go with silver plate for her formal affairs, and stainless steel for everyday use.She didn't like the idea of cleaning the silver, or the idea that the silver plate could wear off after years of use. She consulted the salespeople in the bridal department, and they suggested she pick out two stainless steel patterns, one for formal and one for everyday. They said a lot of new brides are doing that now. Is it perfectly all right in entertaining to serve guests with stainless steel?

Will she be considered out of class or tacky? Her husband-to-be is a professional, and they will be associating with the upper class.

A.Contrary to widespread opinion, etiquette does not discriminate on the basis of price. Miss Manners does not want to turn your stomach by rhapsodizing about the charm of an honest steel fork, graciously laid out and properly used, and the pretentiousness of a silver one that is misued, but the fact is that one does not ensure a charge of tackiness by using the one, or ensure against it with the other.

At the risk of destroying this lofty posture of oblivion to the monetary value, Miss Manners feels obliged to point out that it doesn't cost a cent more to put down sterling silver on a bridal registry than it does to write in stainless steel. If your daughter doesn't want silver, or doesn't plan to clean it, she shouldn't register it--but then, she may not get it anyway.

Q.Having moved into a professional circle on a higher plane than my social one, I am confronted with a new situation I have no background in dealing with.My boss and his wife soon will be having a cocktail party. The other guests will be powerful men we deal with professionally, and their wives. I am a single female at least 20 years younger than the rest of the guests, and currently between boyfriends.

Am I supposed to scour my male friends for an acceptable escort (which I doubt exists for this particular gathering), "go stag," hoping the wives do not get the wrong impression of my relationship with their husbands, or hope my boss arranges for a nonattached male to be present?

This is my first professional social event of this type, and since everyone else will be older and wiser, I would like to arrive on sure footing.

A.Why don't you circulate among the wives at the party, assuring them that your relationship with their husbands is strictly professional, the proof of which is that you already have an ample romantic life without such attentions?That ought to shake them up and ensure your that your boss' party is memorable.

That, at any rate, is what your unseemly question suggests to Miss Manners. If you are a respectable businesswoman, she does not see why the problem you pose should arise, even in your own mind. Decent people, whether they are businessmen, businessmen's wives or single young females moving onto higher planes, assume that those whom they meet socially and professionally have their sexual appetites under reasonable control, regardless of whether their outlets are in evidence. Assurance to the contrary only serves, therefore, to raise the doubt it pretends to disclaim.

Q.When served iced tea with a naked lemon and a straw, what should you do? When is it proper to use the straw, and what should you do with the wrapper?Is the lemon to be placed in the tea after squeezing (if that is allowed) or where?

If the lemon is to be discarded (because you don't like it) and there is no saucer, where does it go? Where do empty sugar packets go?

Rest assured that no iced tea shall pass my lips till you answer.

A.How can Miss Manners rest assured while you are sitting there with a naked lemon?Also, do you know what fun it is to get rid of a straw wrapper by opening one end and blowing the rest off through the straw? Miss Maners certainly hopes not.

It is proper to drink iced tea through a straw if a straw is served with the iced tea. It is rude to bring your own straw.

Trash is properly crumpled and placed in an ashtray or just off to the side of one's place. It is unfortunate that commercial establishments are sometimes required to serve paper-wrapped items, and inexcusable for individuals to do so in their homes. Since the practice is not correct, there is therefore no more exactly correct way of disposing of this paper.

One can hardly, however, crumple a lemon. A wedge of lemon may be squeezed into the tea, but a slice is merely floated in it, with the vain hope that it will impart flavor, and not implant itself on the drinker's nose. Lemon is generally offered, not issued, so one needn't take any if one doesn't want any. But if a slice is affixed to the rim of the glass, and you don't want it, and there is no place to put it but the tablecloth, you may simply leave it on the rim and try to drink out of its reach.

1983, United Feature Syndicate Inc.