Q: Two friends and I stopped at a Howard Johnson's for breakfast. The waitress immediately brought menus and water. After taking our orders, she brought us a pitcher of coffee.
When we ran out of coffee, the waitress was attending a table behind us, and I called respectfully, "Ma'am." When she came over, I politely asked, "May we have some more coffee, please?"
She brought it right away, and I responded, "Thank you."
One of my friends reprimanded me for:
1. Calling the waitress "ma'am" instead of "miss." He said "ma'am" was giving the waitress too much authority and respect.
2. Telling the waitress "thank you." He said that is their job, and you're not supposed to thank them.
I say he's wrong on both counts, although perhaps I should have called her "miss" because she appeared (after closer scrutiny) to be a younger woman.
A: Your friend does not have a license to give etiquette lessons. Miss Manners' union does not admit people whose intention is to diminish the amount of politeness in the world.
He is certainly wrong on count two. Thanking people for services is one of the chief signs of good manners.
As for count one, his explanation is wrong, although his information is correct. In a democracy, we do not apportion respect according to one's employment.
However, we also should be able to separate the individual from the role. Who the waitress is, or how old, is not the point. You address her as "waitress," or the less satisfactory "miss," and a male in that role as "waiter," because you are dealing with them only in that function.
Should that person show up as a customer at your place of employment, you would use the term "ma'am" or "sir," because that is the form we use to indicate the dignified deference associated with willingness to perform a service for someone else.
Q: At my daughter's wedding, my husband's parents were seated in the row behind the bride's parents, as they were the first to arrive.
Next came my former parents-in-law, who were seated directly behind them.
Just before the ceremony, during the soloist's performance, my former mother-in-law left her seat, confronted my husband's parents in a loud voice for all to hear clearly, saying that since they were not "real grandparents" they should not be seated where they were and must move.
To avoid embarrassing my daughter and guests by creating a further scene, they graciously moved back.
I feel that my dear in-laws were unduly humiliated and helpless in this situation. Neither my husband nor I was present during this incident, and we did not become aware of what happened until later.
Was the seating done properly? There was no extensive rehearsal, as this was a very informal, small gathering in a minute chapel.
I feel the usher was correct to seat them as they were, since he was told that they were grandparents of the bride and was unaware they were "step-grandparents."
I am waiting to make known my feelings regarding this until I hear from you. If this letter is made public and you have a positive reply for us, perhaps it will ease the humiliation and hurt that my dear in-laws are feeling.
If not, we can graciously acknowledge the faux pas.
A: You cannot seriously be waiting to hear whether loud insults may properly be directed, during the soloist's performance, to elderly wedding guests who other wedding guests think were improperly seated.
There is no chart in heaven showing which pew is to be occupied by grandparents and which by step-grandparents. Close relatives are merely grouped up front, behind the parents. They are not supposed to use the wedding as an opportunity to revive old feuds.
It is a sensible precaution to separate people who cannot be trusted to behave themselves, but not a rule of etiquette, because etiquette quixotically assumes that civilized people do behave themselves.
Your current in-laws, who handled the situation with extreme grace by swallowing the affront in the interest of minimizing the public scene, deserve an apology. Obviously, they are not going to get one from those rude people.
But you should long ago have lavished sympathy and praise on your present in-laws. After all, you may have already demonstrated disapproval of their tormentors by divorcing their son.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.