Is it proper to do two things at the same time?

Miss Manners believes that questions of etiquette deserve definitive answers and not a lot of wishy-washy hedging about how it all depends. Her idea of some good answers to fire off at random are:





"Great heavens, what are you thinking of?"

"Have you taken leave of your senses?"

"If you think you can get away with it."

"Not if you wish to remain in polite society."

But so many things do depend. In this case, it all depends on what two things and where and with whom.

It is proper to drink champagne and make eyes at someone over the top of the glass at the same time. It may not always be wise, but the combination itself is considered socially proper.

However, it was not gallant of dear Gustave Flaubert to smoke a cigar and make love at the same time. Miss Manners dares say he meant it to be improper.

It is not proper to whistle while you work, unless you are a locomotive or a teakettle; it is proper to work and travel at the same time, no matter how much your driver or seat-mate would prefer the combination of transportation and conversation.

Even if you can't carry a tune, it is proper to sing while taking a shower alone (did Miss Mannersld, phrase that more interestingly than she intended?), or when others are singing the national anthem or "Happy Birthday." But no matter how good your voice is, it is improper to perform at a dinner party -- yours or anyone else's -- that is not advertised as a musicale.

It is proper to read at the table in company only if you are at breakfast and if you are reading that morning's paper, not a two weeks' old New Republic. If your mail arrives before breakfast, you may read that, but since nobody's ever does since dear Anthony Trollope left the post office, it is a moot point.

It is proper to read anything at all while you are on the telephone, or to file your fingernails, or to see how many paper airplanes you can land in the wastebasket, provided that your uh-hmmms are so timed that they do not tip off the person at the other end.

Whether it is proper to listen to music and do homework at the same time depends on the views of the students' parents; but whether it is proper for strangers to listen to music on the streets depends only on whether they are using earphones. Miss Manners has no patience with those who denounce this practice on the grounds that it cuts the hearer off from what is going on around him, because the same people think it is adorable of Miss Manners to wander about reading limp leather books.

It is never proper to have a television set on when visitors arrive except on Election Night, but visitors who drop in aren't proper themselves, so they may be told that one is busy just then. Miss Manners thinks it improper to have even so-called background music on when people are talking, but then she thinks such music improper all by itself.

Welcome drop-in visitors may be warned that one has to go on with one's chores while one chats, with the understanding that they will leave if they mind. Whether it is proper to mow the lawn and entertain a neighbor at the same time depends on how long the neighbor has been leaning on the fence.

It is proper and even decorative (meaning nicely old-fashioned) for ladies to do needlework in their own homes when company is present on all but the most formal occasions, and on very informal visits to others.

If they are challenged, they may use an old argument left over from Miss Manners' college days about how it is actually easier to pay attention to what someone is saying when one is knitting. The reasoning is that no one can pay constant attention to a lecture anyway, and it is better to have one's hands active than one's thoughts wandering.

This comes with the warning that the professors didn't care for it. It should be kept in mind that the two things anybody who is talking believes that the other person ought to be doing are 1) listening and 2) committing it all to memory.

Q. My coworkers and I have found ourselves to be in a sticky situation. A lady who works in our office had cosmetic surgery (specifically a "nose job") during her vacation and will be returning shortly. Should we comment on her surgery? And if so, how could we do it in a tactful manner?

If you will be kind enough to tell Miss Manners how you happen to know about the surgery, she will tell you how to react.

In more restrained times, one could assume that you had found out accidentally, in which case it would be rude to acknowledge that you noticed the specific change. In that case, you should reassure her that it was worthwhile by the general statement, "You look wonderful," made while staring the lady straight in the eyes.

But for all Miss Manners knows, the lady may have announced the entire procedure before leaving, which would make it rude not to notice. However, one should still emphasize the effect rather than the cause. "It makes you look so much more -- you" is more charming than, "They did a good job on you."