We seem to have lost the ability to have meaningless exchanges.
Anyone can have a meaningful exchange. Tiresome people do it all the time, long past their and everybody else's bedtime.
A meaningful exchange generally consists of one person's reciting all of his or her grievances against life from the time of birth on, for the benefit of someone who waits for a pause, quickly interjects, "Something like that happened to me, too," and starts his own recital. Or it can be one person's listing what he doesn't like about another, while the other, under the pretext of listening because he is eager to receive constructive criticism, prepares a retaliatory list.
But meaningless remarks, which are actually much more comforting, are constantly being challenged. These are the little pleasant phrases one uses to greet or take leave of people, to signify a desire to converse or simply to be agreeable.
People keep analyzing these statements for meaning. They defy those who use them to justify themselves, and thus discourage the distribution of innocent courtesies. Miss Manners is becoming concerned. Any day now, people will begin complaining that "please" is subservient, and one should simply demand what one wants without it.
Look at the reaction to that modern sign-off, "Have a nice day." Innocuous though this statement may be, there are those who hate it.
Examining it for meaning, they demand to know why they should have to have a nice day, how dare anyone presume to tell them what kind of a day to have, and so on. With amazing penetration, they then declare that the remark is insincere. The person who says it doesn't really care about their day at all. Not deep down.
Is that so? Oh, my.
But is there so much deeply felt good will being spread throughout this society that we have to rid ourselves of superficial amiability?
Miss Manners is not prepared to argue in favor of "Have a good day." She is perfectly satisfied with "Goodbye," which contains a similar kindly wish to speed on one's way.
But she is bored to tears by the literary and psychological analysis of simple conventions. Conventions only work when people understand their function and repeat the conventional response. All this overinterpreting has confused people, who then have to search their emotions for reactions.
A Gentle Reader inquires whether the salutation "My dear Helen" is more formal than "Dear Helen." "I feel it is somehow condescending or reprimanding," she says, "but maybe the writer doesn't mean it so."
"My dear" is traditionally more formal than "dear" in America, for those few of us who remember it, and less formal in England, so you have to check your friend's age and nationality to be sure why she used it. But nowhere is it intended as an insult.
There is no conventional salutation intended to condescend or reprimand. People who wish to do that have to improvise ("Dear So-Called Executive," "Dear Spoilsport") and thus put themselves outside the bounds of etiquette.
"How are you?" is strictly a ritualistic utterance, intended to demonstrate polite benevolence. Unless exclaimed by a concerned friend rushing into one's sickroom, it is not an inquiry designed to determine whether the subject is healthy or happy.
Therefore, it does not require more of an answer than the equally conventional "Fine, thank you; how are you?"
"How do you do?" is an even simpler version, to which the reply is, "How do you do?" It is the verbal equivalent of a handshake.
"Has the proper response to 'Thank you' changed from 'You're welcome' to 'Thank you'?" another Gentle Reader inquires. No, people who overinterpret the simple and conventional "Thank you" are then overcome with embarrassment at receiving what they believe is boundless gratitude.
"Thank you" is properly used as a response if someone thanks you when you should have thanked him, as in "Thank you for accepting a ride with me." "Oh, no, not at all; thank you for inviting me."
"Have a good day" being a new entry, we need to establish a conventional answer for it. An English reader inquiring about American ways said he found "Thank you" inadequate, and "Why, thank you, I hope that you have an extremely pleasant day also" fulsome.
Miss Manners hereby declares that the conventional answer should be "Thank you; you, too," sometimes shortened to a smile and "You, too."
The Gentle Reader goes on to ask what the reply is to "You hurry back, you hear?" when said in a way which really means: "I hope never to see hide or hair of you again."
Why, it's "Sure will," said in the same tone.
And thank you.
Q: At a recent reception, I observed two different ways of eating cantaloupe, which was served in wedges. Guests from the East Coast used a teaspoon to eat their wedge of unpeeled cantaloupe. Those from the West Coast used a knife to slice away the cantaloupe peel, then cut off a piece of cantaloupe and picked it up with a fork. Which is considered proper?
A: You forgot to allow for the time difference between the East and West coasts.
Cantaloupe is often eaten with a spoon when it is served for breakfast. But while it is breakfast time on the East Coast, it is past dinner time on the West Coast, and cantaloupe served for dessert is properly eaten with a fruit knife and fork.
Miss Manners hopes this clears up your bewilderment. Those who cannot handle the ambiguity should invest in those little gadgets that turn cantaloupe into melon balls.