It has been such a long time since Miss Manners has enjoyed the thrill of being shocked. It saddens her to think that there are young people coming along who have never experienced that delicious little chill produced by the discovery that the sins of others are even beyond what one has naturally and uncharitably attributed to them.
The time was when almost any subject would do. Rising prices were a traditional favorite ("So flimsily made--and you won't believe what they're asking for it!"); as were changing fashions ("Can you believe that anyone would actually be seen on the street in such a thing!").
The element of disbelief, or at least feigned disbelief, was essential. That is why it is virtually impossible to be shocked these days. The answer to both sample statements is now a bored "Sure, I believe it."
Nevertheless, Miss Manners has decided to be good and shocked once more, if only for old time's sake.
She has chosen the topic of sex, because it was always the one that worked the best. You young ones can have no idea of the shocked satisfaction millions of people used to derive from the simple exercise of counting off the normal human gestation period from the dates of their friends' weddings. (Aha--Miss Manners shocked you there, didn't she, you sweet, non-judgmental thing you; you can't believe that civilized people would ever do this, can you?)
It is true that the element of disbelief is now missing from this calculation and, indeed, from any statement about the juxtaposition of human bodies. Miss Manners finds those who still try to evoke some shock on these matters--she still gets the occasional indignant letter demanding to know if Miss So-and-So, recent history enclosed, is "entitled" to wear white at her wedding--unbearably tiresome.
Miss Manners has elected to be shocked by the prevailing standards, rather than by the violations of previous standards. In other words, it is not the change in what people do that shocks her--behavior has changed a great deal less than the naive suppose--but the change in what they think they ought to do.
Respectable young people of both sexes have been led to believe that such patterns of behavior as picking up strangers in bars or other public places, and consummating a new acquaintance on the first date, are de rigueur. Miss Manners often hears from those who wish to deviate from those standards without being rude--plaintive little requests of "How can I politely tell a strange man to go away?" or "How can I not spend the night with a girl I've taken to dinner, without hurting her feelings?"
Miss Manners does not deny that there always has been naughtiness and sudden passion in the lives of some highly respectable people. How insufferable they would be if there weren't. And she hopes that, when the erotic lightning bolt strikes, they will find her a sympathetic and indulgent confidante.
But it is something quite different to maintain that the forms of behavior to which the inflamed emotions may lead should be set forth as models for normal social life. Miss Manners finds the idea that this has happened, to the extent of intimidating dissenters into apologizing for maintaining their standards of decorum, reprehensible.
In fact, she is deeply, deeply shocked by it.
Q. What in the world would you do if a relative drove up to your home, complete with bag and baggage, to spend a few days? This relative did not call, did not make prior arrangements and could not care less what our plans were.
I found it difficult to say to someone who traveled 100 miles that we had other plans. Should we have left her to fend for herself? How do you tactfully say to her that she should have called? This--having to entertain a guest who was so rude--ruined three days.
A. Miss Manners would dash up to this relative with open arms and exclaim, "Why, what a wonderful surprise! Why didn't you tell me you were coming? I'm heartbroken that you'll be in town, and I will hardly have a chance to see you! If only I had known, I would have been able to entertain you properly. Oh, dear, this is awful! I'm so glad to see you, and now I have to go rushing off! It just isn't fair. You mustn't tease me like this."
Then Miss Manners would go rushing off. If she were feeling generous, she might say, "Make yourself as comfortable as you can--I'm just wretched that I have to tear myself away"; and leave the visitor to fend for herself. If Miss Manners were not feeling generous, she might say, "I'm going to insist that you go to a hotel because I know I can't do right by you." Each time during the weekend that she saw this relative, she would repeat the entire speech, with a chorus of moaning, "Oh, why didn't you let me know?"
Q. I am the chairman of a large charity ball to be held in Washington this fall. The ball is sponsored by an organization of women who range in age from 25 to 45.
For the past 23 years that the ball has been held, the names of the members have appeared on the invitations as either Mrs. John William Smith of Miss Jane Anne Doe.
The question that arises this year is "Why can't the names be written 'Mary Taylor Smith.'"
My committee is not opposed to this, but is concerned with using the correct form, as this is a formal invitation.
A. There is no use in Miss Manners' reciting to you the traditional usage of names on a formal invitation, because 1) you already know it from past years; 2) you have run into trouble with it or you wouldn't be asking; and 3) there is another rule about names that takes precedence over it.
That is the rule that you must allow people to style their names as they wish. Miss Manners has no objection to "Mary Taylor Smith," but Mrs. John William Smith does, and will give you a lecture about how she's proud to have her husband's name, and has had it on the program this way since before you were born, and so on.
Therefore, Miss Manners would list people with the names and titles they chose--Mrs., Miss, Dr., Marchioness or whatever. This is more formal than omitting titles entirely, and uniformity isn't everything.