Q: An older relative who was invited to dinner at my house went around the dining room table after I had set it and brought to me--I was in the kitchen cooking--all the silverware she considered "extra." She told me to put them away, as we did not "need" them and there was no point in dirtying them. I have a dishwasher, but I did as she wished.
While we were eating, I realized that I don't like buttering my roll with the knife I use to cut prime rib and I don't like eating chocolate mousse with a teaspoon.
When this relative, who is a nice person and deserves my respect, comes to my house as a dinner guest again, should I set the table her way? Or should I set it my way and insist on having all the silverware stay on the table if she tries to take it off?
Another older relative calls our house and, when I say "Hello," answers "Hello." Then I say "Hello" again, and he says "Hello" again. This goes on until I recognize his voice and say, "Oh, hello, Uncle Bob."
He is a perfectly nice man and he isn't trying to be funny. He has never had any social life, other than with his family, and I think he expects anyone he calls to recognize his voice. I am getting better at this, but he doesn't call often enough for me to be really familiar with his voice. (He is my husband's uncle.)
Next time, should I try to tell him in a polite way that he ought to give his name when he calls? I am fairly certain he would be insulted and think I was acting uppity, no matter how polite I tried to be.
A: Allowing your elderly relatives to drive you crazy is a virtue known as "respect." Miss Manners greatly admires the patience with which you have practiced this so far, and your concern that a change of policy would be upsetting to them.
Nevertheless, she must protect these old people's true interests against their immediate satisfaction. Even if you are a saint, the day will come if you continue to endure these practices, when you will go after Aunt Martha with the steak knife, or tell Uncle Bob--heavens knows what. It is just such petty irritations that, if repeated often enough, drive their victims to madness.
Of course, you will be kind. "I'm used to eating this way," you will say apologetically to Aunt Martha as you take the silverware from her hand and put it back on the table.
"Who's calling, please?" you will ask Uncle Bob, adding, when he huffily states his name, "Oh, Uncle Bob! How nice to hear from you! Forgive me--I'm just so stupid at recognizing voices."
Q: I recently met my wife's employer, and we began talking about our 6-month-old baby. She asked if I had any recent photographs. I said, "No, I do not carry pictures, but I am sure my wife will bring him in soon to see you in person."
She replied that she had seen pictures of him as a newborn and to my surprise she then said, "Oh, what an . . . (pause for the customary compliment) ugly baby!"
Shocked, I replied, "Isn't it amazing how tactless some people can be"--a remark that went right over her head. How should I have responded?
A: Without proving your point by being tactless. Miss Manners abhors "put-downs" because they add to the total of rudeness in the world, remove the grounds of complaint by putting the complainer on the same level as the offender and, as you found out, are not particularly effective.
Politeness serves so much better. Suppose you had replied, "Really? How kind of you to mention it."
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.
Copyright (c) 1983, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.