How long has it been since you pruned your master guest list? Is it overgrown and even rank? There. Miss Manners has now confirmed your suspicion that the great tool of etiquette is actually a scythe for cutting down all but those who help one on the great climb upward to social and professional heights.

But wait. She is about to suggest not only that you weed all those little creepers from the garden of your private life, but also that you remove any trellises on which you yourself may have been tempted to climb.

Miss Manners (who will now abandon this out-of-season simile in favor of an even less fortunate one) pities those who use their social lives as transportation. Friends should be companions for the voyage of life, with whom you refresh yourself as you go.

People who socialize only with those in a position to offer them lifts from one stage to the next -- well, they are going to have the social lives of hitchhikers. Among other possible misfortunes, this means that they will regularly be put out on lonely stretches of the road.

It is a typical tragedy of Miss Manners' own home town, the sweet and sleepy southern village of Washington, D.C., to mistake one's business associations for social life. So much pseudosocial activity is subsidized by one government or another, or an interest hoping to influence such, that participants come to think of it as their natural form of recreation.

A person in a desirable job slot, being often sought for such events, will come to think of himself as personally popular. "Washington is such a friendly town," such a person will say. "Only it's simply too hectic. We never have any time for ourselves."

"Washington is such a cold town," the same person will say when he no longer holds the desirable job. "We used to be deluged with invitations, and now all our old friends have dropped us."

Meanwhile, the hosts of high-ranking people, who brag that their parties are populated with "movers and shakers," complain that these guests are rude: They refuse to answer invitations until the last minute, arrive late or cancel on the slightest excuse and do not reciprocate.

This pattern is repeated, with variations, wherever competitive society reigns. Not only jobs, but wealth, power, fame and the favor of those who possess them, come and go, and people who use them as a basis for friendship are bound to entertain the same delusions and disillusionments.

Miss Manners has never fully understood why anyone would want to eat at a dinner table that was moving and shaking. It would seem to her that the pleasure of private life, in which time off from competition is spent in pure enjoyment, would be all the more precious to ambitious people.

But it should be obvious that all such arrangements, being based on mutual advantage rather than disinterested affection, should be subject to reevaluation as conditions change, without those outraged cries of cruelty only appropriate to those who pervert sentimental relations for gain.

The contract of business entertaining is plainly to exchange the artifacts of recreation for the hope of favor. The person whose favor is being sought need not reciprocate by offering recreation. And if he is chosen because of his participation in important affairs, then he cannot also be expected to drop these important affairs to observe the convenience of his hosts.

Nor should he complain that he is less sought after when he is doing less moving and more shaking.

A social contract is something else. Equality is presumed in social life, and therefore both parties must make more or less equal efforts to entertain each other, show equal consideration of each other's comfort, and take an equal interest in each other's welfare.

Exact scores are not kept, because social relationships, based on personal qualities that one does not accidentally lose, are expected to endure. If one person requires more sympathetic indulgence at one time, or does less inviting when circumstances make it difficult -- well, it will presumably even out over the long run.

Those are the people with whom you can truly relax, and whom you can trust to remain with you through good and bad.

But if you have on your guest list those who do not treat your invitations with respect; who want from you, in return for their hospitality, your assistance, rather than your own hospitality; or who occupy your leisure time with conversation or maneuvers to their advantage -- remove them from your list of friends.

Miss Manners is not saying that you should stop seeing them altogether -- only that you should make sure you are paid for doing so.

Q. My wife caught a severe cold a few days before we were due to go out to dinner with friends. Since her symptoms included frequent and loud coughing that I felt would be offensive and disturbing to other diners, I suggested we postpone the dinner until a later date.

She reacted by accusing me of allowing my perception of other people's opinions to dominate my life. She felt everyone would understand that a cold is a natural and common occurrence, and no one would be bothered by a few coughs.

Besides, she had already made all of the necessary arrangements and was reluctant to cancel them.

A. Please keep your wife away from Miss Manners. Not only does Miss Manners not want to catch her illness, but she doesn't want to catch her attitude -- admittedly as common as her cold -- that naturalness is an all-purpose excuse for anything, that consideration of others is allowing them to dominate your life, and that suiting your own convenience, even at the risk of other people's health, is, in itself, healthy.

Q. Please say something about the thoughtlessness of people who say, "What are you doing for Thanksgiving (or Christmas)?"

If the people asked have no plans, the question puts them in an embarrassing position.

If they answer truthfully, saying "Nothing," it produces a lot of humiliating pity or sympathy, or makes it seem like an unspoken desire for the questioners to invite them to their celebration. No one wants to be invited just because it has been learned he has no plans.

This is a direct personal question and I have always thought direct personal questions rude and crude.

Many times, the person asked may be glad to have a day of peace and quiet -- but without someone feeling sorry for him.

If the questioner is thinking of issuing an invitation, it seems to me he should issue it without first finding out whether the prospective invitee has other plans.

A. Although Miss Manners agrees with you about personal questions being generally rude, she has a hard time seeing a careless holiday inquiry, probably intended as nothing more than a way of starting an idle conversation, as crude. You should hear what some people ask perfect strangers nowadays.

You need never answer any personal question, however. "Nothing" is an answer that reveals your holiday plans, and is, as you suggest, likely to produce an unwelcome follow-up.

But "Oh, I like to spend my holidays quietly," or "I can't believe it's soon going to be Christmas again" or "Do you think we'll have snow?" are all polite statements that reveal nothing about your plans or lack of them.

Q. When I returned to my hometown from school several years ago, an acquaintance introduced me to a salesperson at a local clothing store for men. This woman gave me several years of excellent service, even holding back items for me until they went officially on sale.

In the meantime, I have developed a very good friendship and close political ties with a gentleman who also works at the same store.

My problem is that both people work on commission, and I am unsure about the proper thing to do. The man is my friend and ally, and truly needs my business. The woman is wealthy and does not need it, but obviously feels I owe her my loyalty based on her prior service. I tend to agree, but feel bad for not giving business to the man. Above all, I wish to offend neither party. What should I do? While there are rules of etiquette on this point for realtors and lawyers, I am unsure as to how one handles this kind of thing in other professions.

A. You have confused two sets of obligations here, one for the business world and one for the personal.

If you keep doing this, you will get into deeper and deeper trouble, with both those who provide you with services and those who are your friends. What would happen if you cut off the salesperson who had given you good service, in favor of your friend, who then did the job badly, lovable as he may be in private life?

Miss Manners strongly advises you to learn to separate these realms.

Loyalty to a friend means sticking by him, through ups and downs, forgiving lapses or errors of judgment. When you can no longer do that wholeheartedly, tolerating the bad with the good, the friendship is in danger.

Loyalty to a businessperson, however, means rewarding good service. You would be within the realm of good business manners to withdraw your patronage from this woman were you dissatisfied with the service (regardless of whether other troubles made it difficult for her to perform well, as you would have to consider in the case of a friend). But to withdraw it from someone who has made special and successful efforts to please you as a customer is, in business terms, rude.

Personal circumstances have nothing to do with it. It is none of your business, as long as this woman does her job well, whether or not, by your calculations, she needs the money.

You may well worry about your friend's needing the money, but if you think about it you will realize that you would have to worry all the more if you think he hopes to make a living from depending on friendship rather than business skills.

Miss Manners advises you to greet your friend heartily when you patronize the store, and then excuse yourself to make your purchases, explaining that his colleague has always been your salesclerk. 1984, United Feature Syndicate Inc.