When Miss Manners hears people extolling the virtues of "communication" in marriage, she always wants to know what is being communicated. Certain types of marital communication, it seems to her, are best left uncommunicated.
"I had the wildest dream about a man at my office."
"There's something that's been bothering me for years that I'd like to get off my chest so I can forget it. Remember that time when I said I had to go to a convention in Mexico City?"
"Look what I found in your drawer."
"You want to know what I've resented all these years?"
"If you weren't married to me, what would you want to be doing now?"
"You know what I could have done with my life if I hadn't married you?"
"I suppose you know you made a fool of yourself in front of everybody."
And so on. This is the sort of thing marital partners can't wait to communicate to each other, always to disastrous effect. If it can't be helped, Miss Manners believes, it needn't be stated.
Yet she recognizes that there is a need for marital communication when things can be helped. Here are some thoughts that ought to be communicated:
"The story you're in the middle of telling was told to us by the person you're telling it to."
"Go ahead and invite these people for the weekend, but I think you should know that if they come, I'm going to move out."
"The reason nobody seems to be following your argument is that you have food on your chin."
"The woman you're talking to is the sister-in-law of the man you're talking about."
"If we don't go home in the next few minutes, I won't be responsible for my behavior."
But one must be careful never to communicate these matters in words. That only adds to the unpleasantness the rather comic-pathetic touch of being reprimanded by one's spouse.
That is why one never attempts anything of the kind unless it is a full-fledged emergency. That lets out "No, dear, it didn't happen on Tuesday, it was Wednesday, and besides, you're spoiling the punch line."
Nor should this service be confused with the common practice of offering after-the-fact unfavorable reviews of a partner's behavior. Any sentence after a gathering that begins, "Why didn't you tell them that . . . ?" or "Why did you have to do . . . ?" should be outlawed. The idea that one of the advantages of being married is to have your own ever-present honest critic is a mistake.
Marital communication, performed in public to avert disaster, must be done in code.
The most useful code is The Look -- that facial expression, undecipherable to any outsider, that means, "Watch out, something is very, very wrong."
Let us say, for example, that one person wants to go home from a gathering, while the other would prefer to stay longer.
The first says, pleasantly enough, "I'm afraid it's late, darling," or "This is such fun, but I have to get up early."
The second counters with a jovial, "Oh, let's just have one more drink," or "But tomorrow's Saturday."
As stated, this is a tossup. But if the first statement is accompanied by The Look, it means "I can't stand this one more minute, get me out of here before I scream," while the second, with The Look added, is transformed into "Hold off, I'm closing an important deal." It should be a rule of marriage that the person with The Look should be obeyed, with any disagreement to be conducted afterward.
The Look also means, "Pay attention," so that a tiny accompanying gesture, such as dabbing one's own chin with a napkin, should be enough to alert the partner that something is wrong with his own.
A quick flash of The Look could accompany a seemingly irrelevant interruption, such as might stop someone's telling an unfortunate story. It is helpful then to give your partner a cue, such as "Oh, yes, Bill, your brother-in-law -- how is he?"
For the spoken code, every couple needs a Bunbury. Bunbury, you may recall, was the fictitious character whom dear Algernon Moncrieff in "The Importance of Being Earnest" used to claim he had to visit when he needed an excuse.
Let us say you have a fake Aunt Ida. While your spouse is extending or accepting what you consider appalling hospitality, you say, "Oh, darling, we can't that weekend. Remember, we promised Aunt Ida." Miss Manners prefers that you not make it an untruth by saying what you promised Aunt Ida.
However, there is one untruth that should follow all such communications. Miss Manners does not generally sanction lies (although she is often solidly in favor of withholding the whole damaging truth), but this one is the basis of any true relationship.
It is: "Don't be silly, darling. Nobody noticed but me."Q Is it proper to keep your table set at all times? I have a girlfriend who keeps her table set, and it's beautiful. I would like to, too, if it's the proper thing to do. Also, should the napkins be inside the glasses, or at the side of the plate? A Please do not pass this on to your friend, but it is a silly affectation to keep your table set, as if in perpetual expectation of guests who never arrive. The mention of putting napkins inside glasses -- where will you put the water, in a puddle at the left of the fork? -- leads Miss Manners to believe that your friend is unfortunately trying to make her home look like a restaurant.
But if your heart is set on showing off your china and silver, Miss Manners will allow you to set your dinner table after breakfast, provided that you pretend you only did so because you had a full workday ahead, and that you use your good things to serve your well-deserving family.