For all the talk about feelings in this society, people seem to recognize only two emotions in anyone other than themselves.
These are: Mad and Not Mad.
Not Mad is the one you needn't do anything about.
Analyzing and expressing one's own infinitely varied and subtle feelings has been the national sport for some time now, and naturally it is a nuisance for anyone so engaged to be interrupted to deal with anyone else's. The common solution, Miss Manners has noticed, is to sort other people's feelings into these two rough categories, and then to ignore the second group.
The first cannot be safely ignored. Mad people do all sorts of unpleasant things, such as screaming, making scenes, slamming or breaking inanimate objects, and demanding to stay up all night talking things out.
You must therefore placate the mad person, which is a lot of trouble. You have to find out why he or she is mad and what he expects you to do before he will agree to cease being mad. Then, if you do not agree that the stipulated requirement is fair, you must bargain with the person, perhaps using anger of your own as a tool, until you establish mutually satisfactory terms for a truce.
The fear of bringing all this on is a powerful deterrent. So if you know something you do or fail to do will make another person mad, you will probably adjust your behavior accordingly. (If, on the contrary, it encourages you to get that anger going, for the entertainment value, Miss Manners only asks you to find a partner who likes it too, and stay out of the way of more peaceful souls, such as herself.)
But what about that other category, Not Mad? What about those who, like Miss Manners, do not employ Going Over the Brink as a method of guaranteeing their preferences will be treated seriously?
Gentle souls have wishes and rights, too. They are not necessarily timid about stating these either. But they state them politely, however firmly, and they therefore find themselves in the category of Not Mad.
Does this mean that the requests of polite people are more apt to be ignored than those of people whose ordinary behavior includes Getting Mad?
Yes, it does.
In the interests of promoting courtesy, Miss Manners has occasionally gone so far as to cite instances when politeness is more effective social protection from rudeness than is more rudeness. "Thank you, how kind of you to mention it" is a better retort to "You're putting on weight, aren't you?" than is "Well, you don't look so hot yourself."
One morning, Miss Manners was on a crowded bus, where an angry man shouted an obscene command to those in the aisle to move back. People stubbornly stayed where they were, bunched up in front, until someone replied, "Good morning, sir." Then everyone, including the suddenly sheepish shouter, smiled and politely moved about to accommodate others.
However, Miss Manners has never meant to claim that etiquette is a foolproof form of self-defense, another of those tiresome techniques for assertiveness and selfishness.
And it is sadly but undoubtedly true that the world is full of spouses, lovers, friends, colleagues, employers and even employes who feel it is safe to ignore the reasonably stated requests of individuals who can be assumed not to go -- or rather act -- mad.
As a result, some disillusioned souls desert the ranks of the Not Mad and retrain their associates to treat them as carefully as they treat the Mad. Then there is so much less gentleness and sanity in the world.
Others, who can't quite bear to do that, try an intermediate stage: Sad. In other words, they mope or cry when disappointed, hoping that pity for sadness will accomplish the same results as fear of madness.
But in both of these unfortunate cases, the person who formerly tried to make himself heard without getting mad will encounter bewilderment: "I didn't know you felt that way"; "Yes, I guess you did mention it once, but I didn't know you meant it"; "How was I to know you felt so strongly about it?"
Miss Manners hereby requests everyone to cooperate in lessening the anger level in this society. Getting mad, and failing to pay attention to the needs of others unless they get mad, only creates a world in which ever more stridence will be required to make oneself heard.
She is only going to say this once, in her little, mild, ladylike voice. But she means it.
Q: Whenever she drives, a certain member of my car pool plays easy-listening radio stations. I have no objection to the music, but it is invariably accompanied by piteous groans and gurglings that, evidently, are her attempts at humming.
These vocal embellishments are not such easy listening, since they suggest wounded animals, and I am a sensitive person. But how can I ask her to stop humming without offending her sensibilities?
A: Miss Manners agrees with you that tuneless humming is maddening. It's all the more infuriating because the person probably doesn't realize she's doing it -- so asking her to stop might well be ineffective.
However, you can politely ask to kill the music that inspires her: "Do you mind if I turn this off so we can talk?" Then engage her in conversation. It is physically impossible to talk and hum at the same time.