A hostess of Miss Manners' acquaintance was attempting to entice her into one of those tsk-tsk conversations about how rude guests are nowadays.

This is not difficult to do; Miss Manners has been going on for so long about the rudeness of people who don't answer invitations, show up late, bring extra guests and don't write thank-you notes, that she can do so on automatic pilot, while engaged in writing her own sprightly thank-you letters.

But this time something caught her attention. While the hostess was condemning her errant guests, she nevertheless also seemed to be making their excuses for them by bragging about how busy they were.

"Really, it's disgraceful," the hostess was saying. "You'd think they would know better. After all, these are incredibly important people. You know I always like to have people who are involved in whatever the big issue of the day is. Yet they know so little about manners that sometimes they come hours late, or even fail to show up altogether."

Miss Manners ventured the timid opinion that big issues of the day aren't always tidied up by dinner time. "Why don't you invite them when they're less busy?" she suggested mildly.

Oh-oh; now she'd done it. The hostess gave Miss Manners a haughty look. Obviously, she did not want to be taken for the sort of person to have at her dinner table people who had nothing better to do than go out to dinner.

But by snagging guests while they were in the thick of things and then demanding that they drop those very exploits for which she prized them, in order to behave as if they were entirely at leisure, the hostess had set up a contest she was bound to lose.

She had also lost a good deal of Miss Manners' usually abundant sympathy. Some of that needed to be put aside for the guests, who will cry for it when, their moment of public glory over, they find themselves no longer pursued by such as this hostess.

Miss Manners is not recounting all this just to provide you with a snicker about the dangers of social-lion hunting. She believes there is a greater point here about the risks involved in any sort of pseudo-social life, even the commonly accepted one of business entertaining.

Socializing, whether it is grand-scale dining or beer-and-the-ball-game, is supposed to be a nonprofit, purely recreational activity. One who feeds and amuses others, with no other motive than the urge of hospitality, creates obligations for the recipients of that largess.

But Miss Manners believes the cynicism that sets in when one knows one is sought for one's position is not entirely unjustified. Once you know that you convey on your hosts something more valuable than merely your charm, you no longer feel quite like a guest. Gratitude disappears. Even when everybody else observed the niceties, there were bachelors who felt that the desirability of their position absolved them from observing the social niceties.

Miss Manners does not condone any escape from social duty, but has compromises to propose:

Purely business functions may be treated as such, even though meals are involved. That is, you let people know if you are attending and you arrive on time, as you would for a meeting, but it is understood that you may cancel if you find it not the best use of your time. When guests are asked to sacrifice what is normally social time, evenings or weekends, each should be allowed to bring a companion. Thank-you notes are not strictly required.

Genuinely social functions still go by the old rules. Bachelors, for example, are not allowed to consider themselves any more valuable than any other guests.

Miss Manners expects those who accept an invitation to go along with the idea that they are there for their personal qualities only, and observe the forms. But they may, with the agreement of the hostess, accept provisionally: "As long as you understand that if the session runs late I won't be able to get away -- don't hold dinner for me." The guest is therefore excused in advance for anticipated violations -- and the hostess has just as much fun telling the other guests who would have been there and why he is absent as she would get from his presence.

Q. In two recent situations, at the end of an informal dinner where I did not know the host/hostess well, all the women stood up at the end of dinner to clear the table.

In each case (one dinner was at my date's best friend's grandmother's; the other when we were one of three couples at a celebration) -- all the women were there as a result of the male friendships, and were not well acquainted. The men just sat there and talked.

I was quite torn between being gracious and offering to help, and sitting with the men and feeling ungracious. Needless to say, the men should have helped, but were not about to do so.

How can contemporary, well-mannered women free themselves in polite society from being relegated to the unshared responsibility of cook-housekeeper?

A. By acknowledging that help may be necessary, without acknowledging that only ladies may provide it. Spring up, declare, "Oh, we must help," and then put a friendly hand on your gentleman friend's shoulder and say, "You men are just gossiping, anyway -- why don't you chat in the kitchen, while we women sit down and really talk?"

Then sit down.