Q: Today at lunch someone reached across the table and stole my french fries. I proceeded to stab him with the fork I was holding. For future reference, I would like to know the correct response to this breach of etiquette.
A: "Ouch." Oh--you mean his breach of etiquette.
Your response to that was all right as far as it went, but it omitted the final touch that makes a vicious, although provoked, gesture impeccably correct. After stabbing the interloper with your fork, you should have looked in horror at the row of tiny holes you had made in his hand and exclaimed, "Oh, I'm so terribly sorry! I thought that was my plate!"
Q: I have a beautiful 8-year-old daughter who has mild paralysis in her right arm. This means that she is unable to shake hands or use utensils "properly" and has difficulty in some social situations.
Because she wears no brace, people often are unaware of her limitations and criticize her for poor manners when she tries her best. She really wants to be a lady, and it really hurts when other people comment.
Can you help us with polite responses? Our problem is complicated by the fact that some of these people are being deliberately cruel. They simply do not recognize her limitations, and she feels too self-conscious to engage in a lengthy explanation of her arm.
A: By all the evidence you provide, your daughter is a little lady; it is those who comment on her behavior who need the etiquette lessons.
Nevertheless, Miss Manners believes that their rudeness is not deliberate cruelty--just plain old busybody, unthinking rudeness.
It is natural to expect everyone to perform such a commonplace gesture of society as a handshake--although the reasons not to range from arthritis to the religious injunction against touching a member of the opposite sex--and it is a convention of this society that a refusal to do so is a deliberate insult.
The person who cannot shake hands must therefore offer some brief explanation. Your daughter could either say "I have trouble with my arm" without elaborating (the reply to further inquiries is "It's not important, don't worry about it") or she could offer her left hand.
On the whole, Miss Manners does not believe that one needs to recite one's medical history socially, in order to satisfy the rudeness or curiosity of others, but when she once instructed a mother who asked how to teach her child to avoid this, she was soundly berated by those who interpreted it as "being ashamed" of the disability. Although Miss Manners is far from associating privacy with shamefulness, she feels that the decision to reply to those who want to know what is "wrong" is strictly voluntary.
In any case, tell your daughter that the reply to those who criticize one's manners, for whatever reason, is a cold stare that clearly shows, plainer than words, what one thinks of their manners.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.