"You know, he talks only to women at parties." It was with vast amusement that one gentleman of Miss Manners' acquaintance so remarked of another.

It was seen as a rather endearing weakness -- using gatherings of important people in work related to his own, merely to indulge in courtly flirtations with ladies. Rather than advancing his own professional interests, or allowing other male guests to promote theirs through conversation with him, this renegade was wasting time exchanging meaningless pleasantries with ladies.

Miss Manners jumped to his defense. She has been too often lured to what were supposed to be social events, only to be bored senseless by the calculated conversation of those so consumed with ambition that they could talk of nothing else.

Lavishness of food and drink does not fool her into thinking that business meetings are really parties. Sometimes these are frankly announced as business ventures, with companies acting as hosts, and Miss Manners, fortunate enough to be in a business that does not require after-hours hustling, can simply decline.

But some such events are cleverly disguised and one accepts the charming luncheon or dinner invitation thinking one's sweet company is wanted. Then it turns out that the guests have been artfully chosen to be of professional assistance to one or another, and the conversation is gracefully steered to an agenda. Miss Manners, who wants the luxury of disinterested recreation when she leaves her comfortable hearth, feels cheated.

So there she was, defending flirting as a legitimate social activity, as opposed to making deals or even "contacts" during what is supposed to pass for leisure. Professional enterprise is a wonderful thing, she acknowledges, but so is time out.

A gentleman who had both social and professional interests, but knew how to keep each in its proper sphere, was therefore to be admired. But when Miss Manners also found herself assuming that what was admirable was the sacrifice of business gain for the sake of civilized pleasure, she stopped short.

The gentleman in question had, she knew, all kinds of valuable "contacts." Although he had never knowingly cultivated useful people, there was hardly an interesting field or a significant organization one could mention in which he did not have a powerful friend, anxious to be of service.

The funny thing is that they were all women. These were the ladies whom he had, for the sheer pleasure of it, charmingly sought out at parties.

Miss Manners had some trouble extracting the secret, for the gentleman had merely been acting on his personal inclinations. It turned out that his manner of flirtation had never been the exaggerated compliment, the patronizing speech or the condescending topic. He had not talked to ladies to get away from serious conversation, but to have real conversation.

Bored by the shoptalk, he had drawn out the ladies on their interests. And although his practice dated from the time that ladies had been supposed not to be interested in anything but the personal and domestic, he had found otherwise.

They told him their thoughts, their observations and their hopes. Taking these matters seriously, he had always responded in kind, often, without quite realizing it, giving these ladies a rare treat by taking them seriously.

One immediate result was that the gentlemen to whom he had not talked were told, after the parties, what a fascinating person he was. At the same time, Miss Manners suspects, those who had ignored the ladies -- who were, after all, not there by accident, but were attached to the gentlemen guests -- were being characterized, to the very people they had tried to impress, as boorish.

And now, life having changed, and the lives of individual ladies naturally changing, many of these ladies have turned out to be important people. Some of them are considerably more important than the gentlemen who were supposed to have provided the serious interest at those parties.

And an amazing number of them, through the years, have kept a soft spot in their hearts for the gentleman who chose to spend his social hours talking to them.

The gentleman is always glad to see them -- provided they don't try to use his dinner parties to advance anybody's career, including, in their gratitude, his own.

Q: Could you advise me as to the correct way -- if there is a correct way -- to acknowledge an inheritance to the surviving partner?

My older sister's ex-husband's grandfather passed away and left me $2,000. I am very grateful and would like to thank his widow, but I do not want to make her uncomfortable in any way.

A: Why does Miss Manners have the feeling that there is some essential background information missing?

It seems to Miss Manners that a widow's attitude toward an heiress of her husband's might be determined by how he happened to want to leave money to his grandson's ex-sister-in-law. If you have reason to believe that the gentleman's sentiment toward you was one his wife might have approved and shared, by all means direct your gratitude toward her.

If not, don't.