Can we momentarily tear ourselves away from the interesting question of how gentlemen should treat ladies in an enlightened era? Miss Manners knows people of both genders who have hardly discussed anything else in years, but right now she has a more difficult problem for consideration.

It is: How should ladies properly treat ladies?

As Miss Manners , she presumes that the standard gestures -- young ladies rising for elder ones, those who know where the powder room is telling those who don't -- are still in effect.

What worries her is that a whole new field for rudeness has sprung up in the last decade or two, providing opportunities that never existed before for ladies to insult other ladies.

This development arises from the fact that some ladies have paid jobs and others do unpaid work in their homes and communities. A tremendous amount of effort is expended by both groups to make representatives of the other feel perfectly dreadful.

Salaried ladies boom, "But what do you do?" at unsalaried ladies, who, succumbing to the implication that only jobs can make them glamorous and interesting, grow either wretched or defensive when owning up to being a housewife.

Miss Manners would be hard put to decide which is more pathetic -- those who belittle themselves by using the title of "justahousewife" or those who try to make housewifery sound like paid employment by saying they are domestic management consultants. In either case, there is an unnecessary concession of inferiority.

Meanwhile, the unsalaried ladies are equally on the offensive, booming, "How do you manage?" at the salaried ladies in a way intended to imply that these people have sacrificed the decencies of personal or family life in order to luxuriate wickedly in the joys of labor.

The defenses this inspires, whether they take the form of bragging of the multiplicity of domestic perfections performed in addition to the job, or of weeping that the inability to do everything constitutes failure, are also pathetic.

And if this is not sufficient to spread unhappiness among one's own gender, married ladies can make single ladies feel that they are missing all the fun, and vice versa; and those with children can similarly vie with those who are childless.

All of this unkindness and resulting misery is, in Miss Manners' opinion, rude and presumptive. It seems perfectly obvious to her that different individuals will choose to order their lives differently, and stupidly arrogant to suggest that someone who does not live as one does oneself is in error.

Surely any gender that has experienced one-size-fits-all pantyhose should know better than to attempt to apply that concept to the major decisions of life.

Ironically, this form of rudeness arises, Miss Manners believes, from a tradition of special courtesies that ladies have long exhibited to one another.

More than gentlemen, ladies have been generous in offering practical help, advice and the benefit of their wisdom, taste and experience to friends of their gender. Miss Manners is far from condemning the sensitivity and concern this represents.

The danger is when anyone begins to feel that she knows better than another what is good for that person. What may be kindly offered in support, is, if given the weight of rightness, used to crush.

Each lady, Miss Manners asserts, must make her own choices among the available possibilities in the way of family and occupation. And every other lady who wishes to behave properly will have to treat these decisions with as much dignity and respect as her own choices.Q If you have guests for a dinner served buffet style, is it proper for the host to precede his guests or follow them? A The simple answer would be that a host never dreams of serving himself before his guests, but Miss Manners does not suspect you of asking a simple question.

You are probably only too well acquainted with the annoying phenomenon of guests who hang back, refusing all pleas to open the buffet line, while the host grows exasperated and finally decides to show them how it is done. The foolish reticence of guests who all think it brazen "to be the first" can goad a host to desperate measures.

However, announcing, "All right then, don't -- but at least I'm going to have dinner," does not do. The host must select a guest -- the eldest lady present, if possible -- and, taking her firmly by the arm so she can't escape, hand her a plate and say, "Would you please start?"

If that doesn't work, he may fill a plate and hand it to her. Other guests usually follow, but he can keep handing out plates as long as is necessary. He has to eat last, but by then, he is usually too exhausted to care.

One lesson you should learn from this story is that the guest who marches up to the table when dinner is announced is considered by the host, at least, to exhibit leadership rather than greed.