People seem to be having the same trouble opening conversations these days as Miss Manners has opening anchovy cans.
That is, they are afraid that even if they go about it in the prescribed way, they will not only hurt themselves, but also make a mess.
The traditional way of opening a conversation with someone one has just met is to utter some sort of neutral comment or question that gives the person addressed the opportunity to choose a topic. If that topic does not suit, the first person tries another, and so on until they either find something to talk about or give up and go home to bed.
It is not unlike the routine that bridge partners go through to discover each other's strengths. They declare their own, gradually, and take careful note of the reactions. If it becomes obvious that there is no common ground, they pass.
North says the weather is unseasonably warm.
South, when it is her turn, replies that her skiing holiday has been ruined, and inquires whether North skis.
North says no, but he does a lot of fishing in warm weather; the winter, he prefers to spend snugly at home by the fireside listening to records.
South says she also collects records, and asks what kind of music North likes . . .
Meanwhile, East has commented that the hors d'oeuvres are excellent, and a lot of work must have gone into them.
West replies that she is about the only person she knows who is not a gourmet cook, but as a dancer, she can't afford to be tempted.
East asks what kind of dancing she does . . .
Both opening bids -- weather and food -- have been rejected, but both sets of partners have found suits in common. Perhaps one couple will go on to make game. Perhaps Miss Manners will drop this simile before it gets unbearably racy. (But she's not going back to the anchovies, either. She is going to try to play it straight.)
What has ruined this perfectly workable routine?
One thing is the difficulty people seem to be having in finding opening topics that remain neutral and have not become emotionally charged. Everybody is so touchy these days.
Another is a new reluctance to engage in banal preliminaries for fear of losing a stranger's attention before real conversation can begin.
The idea seems to be that one is only allowed a few seconds for an audition, and that if an opening line is dull or offensive, one will be dismissed.
The search is therefore on for that brilliant, all-purpose opening guaranteed to rivet anyone on the spot. Now and then, people apply to Miss Manners for such a line, imagining that there is one in the social lexicon, along with such successful gems as "My, don't you look lovely" and "Oh, I'm so sorry."
If there were, it wouldn't be unused; don't look for originality in conventionality. Anyway, Miss Manners despises obviously cleverly rehearsed openings.
She cannot exactly recommend offensive openings. The traditional ones include remarks about politics or segments of the society, all of which turn out to be addressed to the people being criticized, or their relatives. Jokes about other people's names are also strictly banned, even if they are funny.
The big new offense, upon meeting someone for the first time, is any inquiry designed to discover his or her occupation. Apparently, hardly anyone thinks his work life is grand enough, and such questions are often taken as research into whether the person is of sufficiently high income and prestige as to make another few minutes of conversation worthwhile.
The dull topics, Miss Manners does recommend. In addition to those mentioned above, they include remarks about new books, plays, films or other cultural activities, nonpolitical comments on the news, and complimentary remarks about the hosts.
She assures you that any alert person will quickly be able to develop this into something more interesting. And personally, her idea of a truly welcome cocktail party line is, "May I freshen your drink?"
Q: Could you please comment on the appropriateness of my father's wife (not my mother) calling herself grandma of her husband's grandchildren? Both my mother and my husband's mother are alive. Should a child have a third "grandma"?
I resent it. I have had almost no relationship with my father in the 10 years since he divorced my mother, and have met his wife only once. Am I being oversensitive, or is this woman out of line? Can you help me deal diplomatically with this? The thought of this woman calling herself grandma of my child really sticks in my craw.
A: How stuck can this be in your craw if you have only seen the lady once this decade? Miss Manners begs you not to make an issue of this for the purpose of restating your objection to a 10-year-old divorce. One does not go around discouraging people from taking a warm interest in one's children. Besides, you'd be surprised how many grandparents a modern child can accumulate without half trying.
Q: If you say, "Let's go to lunch," can the party assume you're paying for them? If so, how do you ask and let them know it is "dutch" without sounding rude? We are retired females who have worked together.
A: "Let's go to lunch" does mean a split bill. "I would be very pleased if you would have lunch with me," followed by a suggested date, means the inviter is willing to pay.
Q: During a recent blizzard, I spent two backbreaking hours shoveling our car out from under a virtual cave of snow so my anxious wife could skid off to her French lessons. When she returned home that afternoon, the neat, rectangular pathway I had carved with such razor-sharp artistry was occupied by the car of a neighbor's dinner guest who, I suspect, had not lifted a shovel all day.
Within the bounds of snowstorm etiquette, what sort of vigilante revenge is a proper neighbor to take?
A: It is with considerable regret that Miss Manners must inform you that making improvements on public property, at whatever cost to yourself in labor or expense, does not entitle you to any special claims to it. If it were your own driveway, you could certainly call the neighbor and ask if he wants to inquire among his guests before you have a strange car towed away, but if the space is on the city street, you cannot reserve it.
Being of a charitable nature, or perhaps just being less weary than you, Miss Manners assumes that your neighbor's dinner guest left a cleared parking space somewhere else in the city in order to make his journey to your neighborhood. But if it comforts you to picture him as a parasite on society, she will not interfere.
Q: My brother disapproves of straws. I use them only when I have a snack, not with formal dinners. I would like your opinion.
A: Straws are wonderful things when you are:
2. So much in love that sharing an ice cream soda seems more desirable than drinking a whole soda yourself.
3. Having the whole soda yourself.
4. Served a drink with so much fruit and ice in it that tipping the glass would be asking for it, right in the nose.
You are right that they are not used at formal dinners. It is thought wise, on such occasions, to remove the considerable temptation of blowing into straws in order to make bubbles.
Q: As one who grew up in a large family that entertained frequently and observed standards of table settings and serving recognized as correct at the time, I have begun to wonder if those standards are now passe'.
As a guest in the homes of loving and generous friends, it has been disconcerting to me to observe that these standards are not being followed. It seems that the members of today's smaller families have succumbed to a routine of self-serving and have lost the consciousness of helping others, or are skilled only in buffet-style service. What are the new standards?
A: New standards? There are no new standards (at least until you hear Miss Manners issuing them); there are only old standards that are being disobeyed.
Miss Manners cannot condemn buffet service, which is useful when there are too many guests and too few servants. Formal service, which means that each guest is presented with a platter from which he or she helps himself, is impossible under those circumstances.
But she agrees that it is a shame that the charming institution of "family service," whereby the host or hostess serves each guest in turn, is less practiced than it used to be. Now, would you please pass her that nice little dish of chocolates?