It is not that most people cannot be trusted to make fools of themselves upon occasion without Miss Manners' help. But they do not seem to know what to do next.
One need not take the trouble to be drunk and imaginative to disgrace oneself. Any one of the following situations will do:
Breaking an obviously unique and treasured item in someone's house.
Looking a dear old friend in the eye and addressing him or her by a wrong name, preferably that of someone your friend does not particularly admire.
Making an innocent remark that seems to have an obscene meaning -- so obscene, in fact, that one does not want to acknowledge, in order to stop the titters, that one is aware of what it means.
Stating a prejudice without realizing that it directly affects someone present. Miss Manners is not talking about true bigotry, which she has no desire to defend from such punishment, because the lesson that it is never safe to make such statements should be forcibly taught. She means such things as saying, "I'm so sick of gravlax -- everybody who wants to be chic is serving it these days," just before the gravlax is served at dinner.
Spilling one's food or drink all over oneself, or better yet, making an extravagant gesture that spills it over one's dinner partner.
Showing up at a social occasion so wrongly dressed that one is automatically isolated by the other guests.
Getting the calendar confused and therefore not showing up at an event where one's absence will be conspicuous -- a small dinner party, for example, where the See MANNERS, H7, Col. 3 others have been growing progressively surlier by being kept waiting -- or showing up on the wrong night to find the hosts in bathrobes.
Arguing a point vigorously, only to be told, after one has thoroughly stated and defended one's position, that one's opponent in the conversation is a leading authority on the subject.
And so on. Miss Manners is confident that everyone can supply his or her own ideas, and carry them out. But then what?
Most people get as far as developing that cold sweat of realizing, or remembering, the full effect of having done something unspeakable. The first attack may occur immediately, but it is the one that comes in the middle of the night that really gets to them.
The solution that appears most helpful to anyone in this position is to disappear from the face of the earth. Miss Manners does not deny that it would best solve the problem.
But there are some other techniques one might try first. Miss Manners hardly dares hope that they will erase the searing memory of shame, but only that they will banish the worst symptoms, such as the need to hide under the blankets when there is no one else present.
Not every one of these works for each situation, and there are no guarantees that any of them will. Miss Manners is only offering a small possibility of comfort in situations that are basically hopeless.
1. Denying it. "Roderick? I didn't say Roderick, I said Herman. How could I get your name wrong? Haven't we been best friends for eight years? At least, I've always thought so, Herman. I don't know how you feel."
2. Rising above it. "Did I say something funny? Oh. Well, obviously what I meant to say was . . ."
3. Claiming to be understood out of context, as it were. "No, no, I didn't mean gravlax. I love gravlax. This is delicious. I meant what people try to palm off as gravlax, which isn't anything like this."
4. Making a joke of it on the spot. The best such example of which Miss Manners has heard was dear George S. Kaufman's reaction when his wife broke someone's antique chair, falling on the floor in a pile of expensive splinters. "Beatrice," he said, "how many times do I have to tell you that's not funny?"
5. Making a joke of it later. "Then after I had expounded my whole theory of Renaissance art, guess who I found out I was talking to?"
6. Apologizing. "How could I have gotten the date wrong? Good heavens, I can't believe I did something so awful. Why, you must be furious -- but no more furious than I am at myself. This is unforgivable."
7. Groveling. "No, no, please, you must let me pay for it, or I will never be able to live with myself. I ought to be shot -- no one so clumsy ought to be allowed to walk around free. Please, I can't stand it; I hate myself."
This is a form of number 6 so exaggerated that the recipient will do anything to put a stop to it. But if it doesn't work, it at least airs the subject's feelings, thus taking the edge off his own conversations with himself.
Q When I burp or belch, I cover my mouth and say, "Pardon me," or "Excuse me."
My wife then says, "All right," "OK" or "Certainly."
It is my position that my comment after involuntary action doesn't require her affirmation or approval. Right?
A This is a literal-minded age, in which such ritualistic statements as "How are you?" and the more recent "Have a nice day" are misinterpreted to be conversation, by people who then angrily denounce the insincerity of the speaker.
You are quite right that "Excuse me" does not require an answer, and Miss Manners does not blame you for finding one tiresome.
She wishes to point out, in the interests of marital harmony, that your wife means no harm. She didn't withhold permission or approval, did she? Now, that would be hostile.
It would be a mistake to engage in conjugal warfare over whether you have the right to burp without her approval. A tactful plea that you find the habit disconcerting, so as not to say irritating, should be enough.
Q I work in a large shopping center as a security officer for one of the stores. Being in uniform and outside the store, I am frequently asked questions such as:
"Do you work here?"
"Can you tell me where (store name) is?"
"Do you know all the stores here?"
"Do you know where (store or business name) is?"
"Where is there a bathroom?"
"Where can I buy a (brand name)?"
Regarding questions one through four, I am often tempted to answer "Yes," and let the person take it from there, since I did answer the question asked of me.
The reason they want to know these is so they can get to where they want to go. Why don't they just ask "Where is -- ?" instead of forcing themselves to ask another question?
I have been trained in the military, as well as police work, to answer the question asked, which I did.
A few people get irate when I do this.
Regarding question five, I have on occasion replied that there are no bathrooms in the shopping center. This puzzles many people, and some have asked me where one would go if one needed a toilet.
I explain to them that a bathroom is a room in a residence where one would be able to take a shower or bath, and if that is what they want while in the shopping center, they are out of luck.
A few understand, but many really become irate.
Question six annoys many shoppers, because they expect us to know that information, which security officers don't. All we can do is suggest.
I am surprised to find out that many people are not aware that public restrooms are available in practically all department stores and restaurants.
Am I wrong in just answering the question asked of me, and not following through with the obvious answer they want to know?
A Miss Manners can imagine that standing on duty in front of a department store all day can tempt one to amuse oneself by playing word games that will delay people with full bladders from reaching the facilities they need. But she certainly will not condone this pastime as polite.
If it were, she herself, who also spends the day answering questions, would skewer you on your use of the term "restroom," which is as much of a euphemism for "toilet" as "bathroom." But the quibble is ridiculous. Both terms are in acceptable usage in this country, and commonly understood.
If you wish to limit yourself to the duties of being a security guard, without making that slight extra effort to be helpful to your fellow creature, Miss Manners will not condemn you, although she will shake her head sadly in disappointment. What would it cost you to help people? Do you never expect to find yourself in a strange situation where you need instructions?
Q Was I right or wrong to tell my son he had no business inviting our guests over to his house without us?
Our guests were his college-age brother, our son, and his girlfriend, visiting us for the first time. I don't want to be a hotel, and I also feel hurt that we haven't been invited over.
After all, my husband and I put him first for so many years, that I had just expected to be treated with dignity and be a guest early in their married life. Many other neglects have occurred, such as no thank-you notes -- in fact, no nice little gestures.
We took them to expensive restaurants and never even had thank you said.
Do we expect too much too soon?
Q No, this sounds to Miss Manners like too little too late. Consideration and kindliness and the manners that go with them are things you should have taught your son years ago.
You may still try, but please do not do so on this particular charge, in which you try to pass off his own brother as a mere guest of yours whom he is poaching. Siblings and their friends are allowed to see one another informally, without automatically including their parents. However he may have neglected you, the problem will not be solved by requiring him to ignore his brother, as well.
The argument you want to make is that you wish to be a part of his married life, visiting him as well as taking him out, and that you expect to be treated at least with the ordinary courtesies of life. Children are supposed to learn such manners from their parents, who may also have to give them late refresher courses.
Q My husband died a few years ago, and I have not remarried, nor have I any intention of doing so. Now I've been told by a friend that I no longer have the right to use his name. Must I lose that too?
A Miss Manners knows your friend, who has been running around the entire country, spreading misery and misinformation among the recently bereaved.
Where this troublemaker, and so many of her mean-spirited helpers, got the idea that a widow's name changes, Miss Manners cannot imagine.
It is simply not true. A married woman's name may take many forms these days (and the overriding rule is that one addresses a lady as she wishes to be addressed, so there is another etiquette violation your friend has committed), but it is never affected by the death of the husband.
Q For some time now, I have been attending certain social functions alone, because my husband is not as interested in socializing as I am.
Last night, we received another invitation for a party, and I was once again confronted with the dilemma of going alone. I don't really mind, but am in a real tizzy trying to figure out how to accept an invitation to both of us, when only I will be attending.
My husband says I should just say, "I have a hard time getting my husband to attend parties, even though he is a wonderful fellow. Would you mind if I came alone?" What do you think?
A That your husband sounds like a wonderful fellow who doesn't go to parties, but doesn't grudge your having a good time. There should be nothing awkward about admitting this, as he suggests.
It is only a 20th-century idea, nothing by Miss Manners' standards of tradition, that one of the chief purposes of socializing is to demonstrate marital solidarity. Separate career schedules have helped make it possible, once again, for a perfectly devoted couple to engage in respectable recreation separately.