Being of a naturally placid nature, Miss Manners, whose sport is porch-rocking, only goes into combat on rare occasions, when she observes small children or cultural institutions being treatened by bullies.
But she also feels called upon to defend etiquette itself from the charge of subservience. It is true that mannerly people prefer to avoid confrontation, which they consider an unpleasant waste of time. However, when they find themselves or a just cause attacked, their response is not to turn the other cheek.
Politeness should not be confused with saintliness.
Those who carelessly assume that a commitment to proper behavior renders one helpless against provocation forget that one of etiquette's most elaborate manifestations was the ritual of the duel. It is just as well that the duel is no longer with us, but it was an extremely formalized way for highly manners-conscious people to say, "You look at me cross-eyed, and I'll stab you in the heart."
There is still a mannerly alternative to those horrible and undisciplined ways that unruly people do battle. What is more, Miss Manners maintains, exquisite coldness has a tactical advantage over hotheaded ugliness.
Swords and pistols being illegal now for settling differences of opinion or avenging insult, sharp words are generally the weapon of choice.
Rude people use blunted ones. The few vulgarities with which the angry attack one another are so commonplace now as to be ineffective. Meanwhile, the language of strict formality is so rarely used as to be more compelling than ever.
Civilized collective bodies, and even our very own United States Congress, have a tradition of combat through courtesy. When one member is addressed by another as "my esteemed colleague" or "the distinguished lady (or gentleman) from the fine state of -- -- ," the person addressed knows he is in trouble. When they start using street insults instead, the organization itself is in trouble.
The argument is sometimes made that the latter represent "plain talk," as opposed to the euphemisms of formality. Nonsense. Miss Manners has never understood why the great art of euphemism is in such bad repute now. She has no interest whatsoever in hearing what people who retire to powder their noses or make telephone calls actually plan to do while they are out of sight. It seems to her that little enough is kept mercifully out of sight these days.
In any case, the truth is that rude language is anything but direct. Obscenity, by using the language of what we shall euphemistically call romance, expresses the exact opposite of what is meant.
The proper phrases are almost a dead language. Here, then, for those who have forgotten, are basic phrases that polite people use to insult one another:
"I beg your pardon." This is the best all-purpose warning that the other person has transgressed and had better retreat. Different degrees of anger can be expressed by it. "I beg your pardon?" asked with raised eyebrows means "You better explain that you did not mean what you actually said." A loud "I beg your pardon!" means "Retreat this instant!"
"Pardon me." Said as "Pardon me?" this means, "You had better not suggest that I have stepped out of line"; whereas "Pardon me!" means "You have just insulted me." (It should be noted that "pardon" is only used challengingly these days. The true expression of regret is "Excuse me" or "I'm sorry.")
"I believe you are gravely mistaken." If the word "mistaken" is emphasized, this means, "You don't know what you're talking about." With additional emphasis on "gravely," it means "You're lying."
"Perhaps you are unaware of the fact that -- -- ." This raises the challenge. It means, "You're lying because you're trying to conceal a fraud."
"Perhaps I did not make myself clear." Now we are really getting rough. This is positively the last warning to retreat before war is declared. By restating your position after this remark, you convey the meaning, "If you challenge me on this again now, we will fight it out."
"How dare you?" This is it, the declaration of war, and means "I will not give up until you surrender" by apologizing or otherwise undoing whatever it is you did.
But even then, politeness must be maintained. When an opponent finally declares himself defeated by saying that his transgression "was never what I intended," the victor is obliged to confine himself to the polite expression of triumph: "Of course not; it was only a very unfortunate mistake."
He may then add, but only in a gracious tone, "I'm sure it will never happen again." That means, "Watch yourself -- because you may be sure I'll be watching you."
Q How do I deal with a woman who always simpers and engages my husband in very quiet and animated conversation when we meet at social gatherings? She hangs on to him the whole time, in a way that would be inappropriate if I did it.
Her marriage is on the rocks. My husband is, of course, flattered and quite pathetic.
I would dearly love to say something politely scathing, but am at a loss. I really don't mind normal social chatter with other women, but this one is on her own.
A You would indeed be saying something scathing if you chose to show your disapproval of this lady's conduct. But you would be saying it to your husband and, to everyone else around, about your husband. Miss Manners does not advise it.
What you would be saying is, "Listen, you poor pathetic sap, don't you realize that you are not an independent human being, free to and capable of making your own social decisions? I will decide who you will talk to, not you."
Q When is it appropriate to open a wedding gift? Obviously the reception makes opening gifts impossible because the bride and groom cannot take time away from their other guests.
When I delivered a wedding gift to the bride's home, I thought she would open it in my presence, but she did not. This was especially disappointing as I had called to make arrangements for the visit ahead of time. Perhaps some encouragement on my part would have alleviated the awkwardness of our visit. I'm being married soon myself, and I do so want to do the proper thing.
A You seem to be doing the proper thing, so let us work on everyone else.
For the reason you mention -- and the additional one Miss Manners often hears about, of presents getting lost or stolen in the confusion -- it is improper to take a wedding present to a wedding. Ordinarily, they are delivered, for the bridal couple to open in private.
But for a prearranged personal delivery, when there is no other guest present who may be embarrassed at not having brought anything, the bride should open the present and exclaim over it (although this does not get her out of writing a letter of thanks). Do so yourself, and encourage others by saying, "Oh, do open it now -- I am dying to know if you like it."
Q I am a high-school student and will be attending our junior-senior prom. I will, of course, be wearing a formal gown.
I would also like to wear gloves for the occasion, but I am uncertain as to when it is proper to remove the gloves. For instance, should they be removed while dining?
I will be wearing a waltz-length dress that leaves my shoulders bare, except for small straps. Could you please advise me as to the correct glove length?
A Miss Manners is delighted to see you make such a pleasant start to the custom of dressing up. White kid gloves, to just below the elbow, are right for your dress. (Shorter ones are for dresses with sleeves, and above the elbow is for ball dresses worn when the gentlemen are in white tie.)
But you must promise, for now and forever, that you will take poison before you touch food or drink when wearing gloves, or wear a bracelet over a glove, no matter whom you see doing so. Miss Manners does not consider it necessary to warn you against wearing a ring over a glove; you seem far too nice a girl even to think of such an idea.