To mark the national holiday, Miss Manners will say a kind word on behalf of American diplomats. Nobody else ever does unless they have been kidnaped.
Possibly because diplomats are almost the only people Miss Manners knows who don't brag about "not knowing which fork to use," as if incompetence at the dinner table were a sure sign of goodness of heart, she has always had a fondness for the profession.
She gets thoroughly indignant when she hears the foreign service spoken of as comically, if not insanely, frivolous, just because it follows certain formal patterns of internationally accepted behavior.
Protocol, which many people seem to regard as vaingloriousness translated into action, is merely a specialized form of etiquette. Both are designed to avoid the misunderstandings that are bound to occur when individuals improvise and insult may therefore be taken when none is intended (or vice versa). It should be obvious that assorted foreigners need a common language of behavior if they are to get along with one another in the civilized atmosphere best suited to solving international problems.
But just when Miss Manners thinks she has managed to get it across that civilization is better than chaos, and coherence better than incoherence, some fool comes along to ask why those who conduct international diplomacy can't just relax and be themselves.
Why are state visits and other international rituals stuffy, they want to know. Must everyone be so stiff and formal? Don't people get along better when they act natural and friendly? ("Natural" and "friendly" are commonly used now to denote blue jeans, first names and psychobabble, while all other possible styles are condemned as "stiff" and "stuffy," especially those that come naturally to Miss Manners, and which she finds relaxing.)
American businessmen and businesswomen, with their expertise in accepted business strategies involving the knowledgeable use of turf, power lunches and dressing to kill, are proud of their ability to use symbolic behavior. They do not tend to relax during negotiations, express their personal emotions at the expense of their business interests, or go wild and free with the fun of it all when entertaining clients or bosses.
If they think about it, they certainly do not want the representatives of their country abroad to do so either. Do we really care to be represented by a bunch of mellow souls, each pursuing his individuality at, in more ways than one, the national expense?
Then what is all this nonsense about protocol being ridiculous?
Miss Manners thinks it comes from the popular idea that left alone, everyone -- countries as much as individuals -- naturally behaves kindly, and that trouble and conflict arise from too much, rather than too little, civilization.
From this, one gets the idea that harmony is best achieved by revealing accurately everything in one's heart and mind (or national agenda), because only lovable things can be found there; that formality is therefore incompatible with charm, because spontaneous expressions are more endearing than thoughtful ones; and that people who have opposing goals will drop their selfish interests once they know about each other's desires.
This idea is bad enough in everyday life, where etiquette provides a decent cover for unattractive feelings and an acceptable method of avoiding confrontation or solving conflicts. Among countries with even slightly differing ideological, territorial or economic interests, the unfettered expression of these natural but conflicting desires would be disastrous.
So to all those American diplomats on duty abroad, especially those who must do Fourth of July picnic duty at the embassy, Miss Manners extends her thanks for not relaxing on the holiday.
Q: As a transplanted Yankee, I have become addicted to that typically southern beverage, iced tea. I want to show that some northerners do have couth, but am at a loss to know what to do with the lemon after it is squeezed:
Drop it in the glass of tea?
Put it on the saucer under the glass or on the bread plate?
Put it in my pocket and dispose of it later?
None of the above?
A: Putting the lemon in your pocket is a good idea only if you think you might be thirsty for lemonade later, and are likely to be caught in the rain. In that case, be sure to pour some sugar into your pocket as well.
Otherwise, a lemon slice is left floating in the tea, where it will remind you not to tilt the glass back too much by fixing itself on your nose if you do. A lemon wedge is best disposed of in the glass, but also may be placed on the saucer. Incidentally, don't let anyone tell you that it is acceptable to leave the iced-tea spoon in the glass while you drink, provided you anchor it against the rim. This carries its own punishment: The spoon is wet, and when it slips against your nose, you will feel it a lot more than the kiss of the lemon.
Q: What should one do with the napkin if one must leave the table during a meal, but will be returning?
I heard that you put your napkin on the table, left of the dinner plate, if you are returning. And you put your napkin on the table, right of the dinner plate, if you are not returning. My brother believes you should put your napkin in your chair if you will be returning to the table.
What is the proper thing to do? This topic comes up in my family at every birthday and holiday dinner, and it would be fun to have the answer for next time.
A: Next time, take your napkin and wave it frantically above your head. This has nothing to do with whether you are leaving or returning to the table, or any other kind of manners. Miss Manners is only suggesting it as the signal of surrender to your brother, to whom you have lost the argument. He is correct.
Q: My daughter is almost 14 years old, and some of her friends have been wearing lipstick, rouge, powder, eye shadow and dark fingernail polish since third or fourth grade.
For a little over a year, I have allowed her to wear very light pink polish on her nails, although I do not really approve. I have adamantly drawn the line there, and am vehemently opposed to the lovely, fresh, natural look of young girls being despoiled by artificialities.
I have told her that at 14 she may wear a very light pink lipstick if she desires. She yearns instead to discolor her face, especially the area around her eyes, with a potpourri of color and cannot understand why I am aghast at this or at purple nail polish.
It is true, Miss Manners, that many of her friends do have colorfully adorned faces, although others have, for one reason or another, restrained themselves. My contention is, however, that some things never change: to wit, the proper usage of makeup by young girls.
A: Oh, everything changes slightly, if you look long enough. There was a time when a young girl anxious to shock her mother had only to pinch her cheeks to achieve a slight pinkness.
It does not surprise Miss Manners that the pale pinks that are favored by those anxious to look like natural, fresh, lovely young girls are not satisfactory to your daughter. The issue is not makeup so much as the satisfaction to be found in fashions that outrage parental generations.
An appropriate compromise would be to allow wild makeup, which she must pay for out of her allowance, to be worn only when she is entirely among her peers, which eliminates school, home and public.