Q. I recently accompanied my husband to an international conference. During a reception, a British gentleman and an Australian began quizzing me about the geographic origin of my surname. At first, I joked that it was an old Ukrainian name, but then I took pity on their confusion and conceded that it was a Jewish name.
The Brit looked as if he would become ill, and even the Aussie, who had been quite charming, turned cool. In the future, should I interpret similar inquiries as a prelude to being snubbed? Should I dismiss them as irrelevant? Avoid the questioner altogether?
How can one save face in such a situation, when it is apparently quite acceptable in many countries to display overt bigotry? Keep in mind that I was trying to play the polite role of the delegate's wife, representing the U.S. government in a foreign country.
A. What makes you think that you have lost face? Miss Manners must disabuse you of the notion that displaying bigotry is acceptable in any civilized country, and therefore of the absurd notion that the embarrassment from the etiquette violation in this situation belongs to you.
Your question should be: How much does one take issue with the bad manners of others in a pseudo-social situation in which one has some responsibility for representing one's country?
Had either of these people made an overtly anti-Semitic remark, your duty would have been clear. You should then have registered furious indignation in your expression and stalked off wordlessly, not neglecting to see to it that the information about these delegates' opinions was registered with your husband's delegation.
You cannot, however, apply these tactics to such undocumentable qualities as charm, coolness and looking ill. For those, you need equally undocumentable responses, such as an expression of icy contempt and an immediate cutoff of conversation, accompanied only by the minimal politeness of saying "excuse me."
As for future such scenes, you might be more wary of the motivation of strangers in formal circumstances making inquiries about your ancestry. Discussions of family origins are common in the United States, and enough people enjoy them to make it safe to assume that curiosity, rather than bigotry, is the usual motivation. That is, of course, no reason that those who do not wish to participate need answer such questions . . . Plenty of people also may be curious about your finances and romantic proclivities.
The answer, in that case, is that any American's name is "an American name." Yes, but where did your family originate? "We are Americans." Everyone in a diplomatic family should know that answers need not fit questions.
Q. Our home is racked by a great debate over how one properly consumes a sandwich cookie. Our son and my wife both agree that you must separate the two halves first. But my son feels that you should lick off the icing first, whereas my wife feels that the un-iced side should be the primary target.
I don't eat sandwich cookies myself, but would like to settle this matter.
A. Miss Manners is sorry to disillusion you about your entire family at once, but it is never proper to separate a cookie horizontally, and therefore the question of which part to attack first is moot.
Mind you, Miss Manners is not disputing that sandwich cookies taste better when pulled apart at the icing. We are discussing propriety here.