Social squirming is, in Miss Manners' opinion, a decidedly unattractive form of behavior, as uncomfortable to perform as it is to watch. She therefore thinks it should be required only of those who find themselves in the wrong, and that innocent people should be spared.
If, for example, you receive a call of inquiry from someone who has sent you an invitation you have not answered; if you find yourself face to face with a bereaved person whom you have not written in sympathy; if you are asked whether you have received a present for which you did not express thanks -- then, squirm away.
Not only will Miss Manners not rescue you, but she will take some naughty satisfaction in your plight.
However, many such people who should be squirming try to avoid it by going on the offensive, with such nasty and fraudulent claims as "They ought to be happy just with the satisfaction of giving" or "If they were really mourning, they wouldn't have noticed."
And while these people (who Miss Manners hopes are secretly squirming anyway, underneath all that brazenness) appear to be getting off free, many perfectly nice people, who are doing just what they ought, are squirming miserably.
One such person is a young lady who likes occasionally to have a small assortment of classmates over for what she describes as mellow evenings, although exactly what that means, Miss Manners has decided not to inquire. Invitations are issued with the proper discretion, which is to say that the hostess knows better than to discuss her hospitality in front of anyone to whom she does not plan to extend it.
Nevertheless, she lives in a state of fear that anyone who is not invited might discover that anyone else was. This applies not only to those with whom she is not on visiting terms, but every person not included at each event, even if many of them are invited by her to other gatherings.
Should any non-guest accidentally hear that she has been entertaining at all, the hostess squirms, just as if she had been discovered in some social crime.
Another instance is that of a gentleman whose business often takes him from his home town to a nearby city where he has assorted relatives and friends. Although his trips are frequent and of short duration, he is in terror that a stray cousin or acquaintance will discover that he has been within those city limits without even telephoning, much less arranging to share a meal.
Even though he keeps in reasonable touch with these people, visiting them when time and inclination coincide, and occasionally spending the extra odd dollar to call them long distance, he looks over his shoulder like a fugitive when he might run into one of them on that person's home territory, and squirms dreadfully if he does -- as he thinks of it -- get caught.
Then there is the gentleman who has found himself, because of his professional affiliation, his state of bachelorhood and his charm, more in demand socially than he cares to be.
Formerly, he refused invitations in such a way as to make him squirm legitimately: by lying about other engagements, and thus running the risk of being discovered; by agreeing to go, and then canceling at the last minute; or by attending events at which he was unable to conceal his lack of enthusiasm.
Having, however, become enlightened by Miss Manners on the correct way of declining invitations politely (with no excuse at all but only a protestation of regret) he now is able to avoid the real danger.
Still, he has not been able to give up squirming. That is because he feels that people who persist in inviting him, even though he has frequently declined their invitations, have made him incur a debt, and that he is now obligated to accept some, and even to reciprocate. (Miss Manners has known people who conduct their love lives in a similar fashion.)
Miss Manners will now get all these squirmers off the hook.
All they need to know is that one does not have to accept unreasonable premises, no matter how persistently pesty others may be about advancing them.
The young lady need not accept the premise that she has to invite all her friends, or all potential friends, to each gathering she gives. The traveling gentleman need not accept the premise that being in a different city requires him to see everyone there he knows. The popular gentleman need not accept the premise that he must socialize with anyone who demonstrates a sufficient interest.
Once these premises are politely rejected, none of these people need fret about not fulfilling related demands. Miss Manners would then be obliged to complain that excessive squirming only serves the dubious purpose of making the rest of us feel decidedly uncomfortable.
Q As a working woman and wife, I often receive invitations to evening social functions that do not include reference to a date or spouse. I find it embarrassing to RSVP, asking whether my husband is included (most often, yes; sometimes, no).
But there are times when attending a function without my husband, such as an embassy gala or a sit-down dinner, would have been more embarrassing.
What would you suggest as the most tactful way to handle these invitations when instructed to RSVP by telephone, and when instructed to RSVP on the enclosed card?
A In the proper world, social invitations are always issued to married couples, the role of other guest-of-a-guest not being recognized, and only business invitations are sent individually. Yet business events disguised as social occasions, a category that includes all embassy functions, for example, are rampant, as is the expectation that everyone gets to bring a date.
In the midst of such general confusion, your embarrassment is quite unnecessary. The only sensible solution is plainly to ask your hosts -- with a call, even if you are sent a card -- what and whom they expect.
Q How do you deal with a rude, boorish person who, while you are carrying on a civilized conversation with another person, comes barging up to your partner and, without acknowledging your presence on the planet Earth, starts a conversation or issues an invitation for a later date -- which definitely does not include you?
Do you stand there like the proverbial lump on a log, or do you wander off, apologizing for being born?
I try to think of some witty thing Oscar Wilde might have said, but so far have had no luck penetrating their tough hides. I take this kind of behavior as a personal insult, and feel I should respond to it. I really don't like these insensitive people. What do you suggest?
A Oscar Wilde was a man of many brilliant talents, but soothing over social differences was not one of them. As Miss Manners recalls, his method of going on the attack when he felt himself insulted got him into some rather serious trouble.
Hers is less spectacular, but works better. By all means wander off with an apology -- not for having been born, but for "intruding."
Q One of my faults is that I am not very socially active. I am 15, and there is this kid in my class who is sociable, likes sports and is very friendly.
I want to become friends with him, but I feel stupid asking him if we could be friends. If I asked him, he would probably think I'm a nerd.
Is there any special way I can try to make friends with him?
A Miss Manners is sorry to say that "Can we be friends?" is, indeed, a stupid question. Friendship cannot be contracted in advance, but must have a chance to develop before it can be given the stamp of recognition.
Friendships develop because people have common interests. Your interest in, and his success at, popularity does not count.
Q I have worked several months for a young man who recently asked me to call him by his first name. Although I was pleased by the idea at first, I have found it awkward to be informal with him, and have resumed calling him by his title.
We haven't discussed the matter further. I respect him, and while I realize that normally such requests should be honored, I want to remain on as businesslike terms as possible when I am with him.
He continues to call me by my first name, which I think is correct. Have I behaved properly?
A You have made a good start, but in the wrong direction. Thus you have ended up with the practice that the present usage of first names in offices -- which Miss Manners also abhors -- was intended to correct.
The one-sided use of first names suggests a basic inequality, rather than simply a partial inequality such as naturally exists in an office, where the hierarchy is clear. Thus, children are properly addressed by their first names, the state of childhood being of lower status than that of full adulthood.
But the old practice of servants and low-level employes being so addressed carried, in Miss Manners' opinion, the undignified implication that they occupied a lower caste than those to whom they were required to speak respectfully.
Although your boss was probably laudibly uncomfortable with this idea, the universal usage of first names, with its phony sociability, is not the solution.
Generally, it is not office employes who set the rules of behavior. But Miss Manners feels confident that when you explain your motivations of respect and the desire to maintain a businesslike atmosphere, you will persuade him that the truly modern answer is, rather, the universal use of honorifics and surnames.