The last person in the world to suggest that it is possible to make too much over an issue of manners is, naturally, your own Miss Manners.
She would have to be last, because everyone else has already gone first. Miss Manners doesn't wish to complain, but it occasionally gets lonely to know right from wrong in an era of relativism and to understand that faith in the individual mandate to regulate all one's own forms of behavior as one sees fit is, however sweet, incredibly naive and impractical.
Therefore, it should by no means be taken as a sign of increasing tolerance in Miss Manners that she must now state that there are occasions when it is improper to insist on the letter of the law.
This does not happen often; there are not, heaven knows, enough polite forms being practiced these days to make them a public danger. But Miss Manners happens to have a handful of letters from people making themselves miserable, ridiculous or both by impaling themselves on points of etiquette.
Here is one from a lady who, on her first visit to her son's home after his marriage, was seated on his left at the dinner table, while his mother-in-law was seated on his right.
"I was so embarrassed I wanted to leave the table, but I didn't," she says. "I raised my son and he had the finest of education and environment. He was always a fine, well-mannered man. I didn't say anything but was very hurt and have decided not to visit again."
What Miss Manners needs to know is whether part of the well-mannered upbringing of this hitherto fine gentleman who is about to lose his mother was the idea that the honor conferred by seating one on the right indicates personal preference of the more honored individual. In that case, he is deliberately insulting his mother and ought to be dropped by her, if not shunned by decent society.
If, however, he was classifying his his mother-in-law as a less intimate relation of his who should get the more formal position, she has no right to take offense. If he was putting her on the side without the draft because he knows she takes cold easily, she should be pleased. If he merely sat the two ladies next to him without any thought to honoring one over the other, any resentment his mother has ought to be directed toward the person who brought him up to be so careless.
In another troubled household, a lady writes that for the seven years of her marriage, her husband has worked the graveyard shift, getting home in the morning as she is getting ready to go to work. She asks: "Is he required to speak first, since he is the one entering the home, or should I? As long as I say 'Good morning' to him, there is no problem. When I say he was the one out all night and should speak to me first, this starts an argument."
The correct exchange on such an occasion is for the person arriving home to shout, "Honey, I'm home" while the one already there simultaneously calls out, "Is that you, dear?" Then the entering person asks, "Who did you think it was?" while the other asks, "Did the paper come?"
This is traditional marital conversation, not without its emotional comforts to those who practice it, and a great deal better than arguing about who says "Good morning" first.
Still another disastrous me'nage is that of two roommates, one of whom makes her bed while the other leaves hers unmade.
The correct polite statement in such a case is: "Look, we both have to live here, and I can't stand the mess. If you can't at least make your bed when we have guests, I'll make it, and you get to do all the vacuuming."
Miss Manners does not want to discourage any of these people from practicing good manners at home but merely to suggest that ignorance of etiquette law on the part of one person renders it impossible to conduct a battle on that issue, so it is better for the offended party to explain nicely what bothers her or him, rather than to slam the door grandly, leaving behind a totally bewildered former intimate.
Q: As an elderly bachelor who is sometimes invited to people's houses for dinner, I have the lifelong custom of taking along a bottle of wine to present to the hostess.
In former decades, the hostess would invariably serve that wine at dinner, usually exclaiming on its excellent flavor. But I have observed in recent years that the hostess usually does not serve the wine I have brought, but rather some other wine off her own rack. Please comment.
A: What has happened is that you, your friends and presumably the wine have all aged -- for the better, Miss Manners trusts. The custom itself need not be changed, but its reception has been, in order to keep up with different circumstances.
When a young guest brings wine to the dinner party of young hosts, it is to make a contribution to that evening's dinner. But when an elderly bachelor brings wine to hosts of his generation, he may expect them already to have chosen a wine appropriate to their dinner menu. Therefore, his contribution is not to defray the burden of giving a party but merely to show his appreciation.