So many traditional opportunities for smutty giggles have disappeared from society. Young people today cannot imagine what fun could once be had by the simple exercise of subtracting from a first baby's birth date the date of the parents' wedding.
Miss Manners is therefore reluctant to subtract other such opportunities from modern life, which is grim enough. But it is high time that the traces of dirty humor be removed from friendship and business associations between ladies and gentlemen.
For some decades now, we have been operating under a system that naively assumed that the only possible relationship between ladies and gentlemen was you-know-what. Therefore, the only set of manners they knew how to use with each other was, uh, shall we say, social gallantry.
Businessmen kept trying to pick up the checks for business meals with female colleagues or even superiors, because the only form of meal they knew how to have with ladies was the date, in which the gentleman traditionally paid. The only language they knew how to employ was the exaggerated personal compliment appropriate to courtship but jarring in professional situations.
Spouses protested working arrangements teaming their husbands or wives with partners of the other gender, because they could only think of one activity these people might do together.
Friendships were supposed to be segregated by gender, and opposite-gender people could only see each other socially if all related spouses were present.
Married couples did not accept dinner invitations unless both could attend. If someone you liked married someone you didn't, or your spouse didn't like the friend or the friend's spouse -- and the statistical chances of finding four people crazy about one another are small -- the tie had to be broken.
The 20th-century wedding is designed for the bride to have her close friends as bridesmaids, and the bridegroom to have his as groomsmen, with no role for her male or his female friends. The very term "just good friends" was popularly understood to refer to a clandestine romance.
Miss Manners hates to be the one to break the news that there is just not that much sex in the world. But the fact is that such innovations as coeducational dormitories and equal employment opportunity have surprised society by leading to affable companionship as much as or more often than unbridled lust.
Nor is this strictly a modern phenomenon. Sophisticated society in the 17th and 18th centuries not only assumed that respectable married people were capable of individual socializing without falling into sin, but looked suspiciously at couples who were always seen in each other's company. There must be a reason, society figured, that they displayed so little trust.
As disappointing as it may be for salacious onlookers, we shall have to relearn the social forms of trust.
It can no longer be safely assumed that ladies and gentlemen who are seen lunching or dining together are doing anything more exciting than talking, or that people who take business trips in mixed groups must be having a wonderful time.
Gracious, you can't even be sure that people who are living together are -- well, living together. These days they could simply be splitting rent or pooling Social Security payments.
For such innocent circumstances, dignified but nonromantic manners are appropriate. The factor of gender is removed from such questions as who initiates meetings and who pays bills. In business, precedence is given to rank, and in comradeship, deference is paid to age.
Society must do its part by refraining from smarmy assumptions: not teasing small children who play together about their "boyfriends" or "girlfriends," and not asking adults how they "feel" about a spouse's opposite-gender colleagues or friends. The truth is that such insinuations were always in dreadful taste; they are also likely to be in terrible error.
But how, then, society wants to know, do we all find out if something really racy is going on? If mere proximity and opportunity are no longer to constitute proof of sin, how on earth are we to be sure that people are not taking advantage of this new license to disguise behavior that we are all dying to know about?
Modern customs have taken care of this contingency. The answer is: They'll tell you.
Q: What is the etiquette of sending a wedding present purchased from a discount store? If I rebox it, which is something I considered, the recipients of the gift would not be able to exchange it, something I want them to be able to do. I do not relish spending 25 percent or 30 percent more in order to have a pretty box.
A: Miss Manners knows of no rule of etiquette that decrees that a wedding present must be boxed by an expensive store. By convention (as opposed to real life), bridal couples are so suffused with love and gratitude that they are totally unaware of the monetary value of the lovely presents they receive from their kind friends.
At least, let us hope that they presume that you were able to get more of a present shopping at a discount store than you would otherwise have bought.
Q: If a woman is said to have "class," what qualities are they referring to that she has?
A: If Miss Manners were to allow such a slangy term to pass her gentle lips, she would use it to mean someone who does not acknowledge noticing class factors related to money or birth, but assesses individuals by their intellectual or spiritual worth.
That was not your question, however. The answer is that "they" may well be referring to the cost of the lady's running shoes.
Q: During a recent stay in London, I ordered a banana every morning for breakfast.
The first morning, it arrived unpeeled on a plate. I peeled it and ate it monkey-fashion.
The second morning, the banana arrived on a plate with a knife and fork. I peeled it, cut it into circles, and ate it with the fork.
The third, fourth and fifth mornings, it arrived already cut into circles. The sixth morning, two arrived on a plate. I collected knife and fork from another table and cut them into circles. The waitress said she gave me two because they were small.
From that time on, I ate the bananas monkey-fashion if they arrived unpeeled, but ate them in circles if they arrived already cut.
Now, Miss Manners, is it correct to peel and eat the banana monkey-fashion, or must one always cut them into circles and eat them with a fork? We would like to stay in the same hotel this summer. Does it make a difference if one is staying in Mayfair or Bloomsbury?
A: Miss Manners wishes to thank you, on behalf of all proud Americans, for demonstrating our adaptability and affability, surely among the best American characteristics. With cheerfulness and ingenuity, we make do with whatever tools are on hand.
Otherwise, nationality and neighborhood have nothing to do with the matter. Whole fruit served in a restaurant is properly eaten with a fruit knife and fruit fork, both here and abroad, but it is more commonly served abroad, where they seem to have a better supply of the proper utensils. In America, we generally treat whole fruit as a snack, to be eaten by hand, and serve fruit at table already cut and peeled.