The nosiness level in this society is out of all control

Once upon a time, it was only blood relatives who claimed the unpleasant right to corner you and inquire, "Aren't you ever going to get married?"

Acquaintances opened with questions more like "Read any good books lately?" When strangers attempted conversation on public transportation, it was with "Awful weather we're having lately," not inquiries about your occupation and how much it pays.

Even intimate friends in times of crisis were supposed to offer "You know you can count on me if you need me," rather than fix you with a steely eye and demand, "Why do you look so terrible?"

Now reports come in to Miss Manners every day from those who have been relentlessly quizzed by friends and strangers alike, just about everywhere they go. People go right up to them and demand to know their age, weight, romantic prospects, finances, employment, eating habits, cost and provenance of their clothing, and what plans they have for their wombs.

The strange thing is that nobody enjoys being grilled in this fashion. Miss Manners has yet to hear from someone who is pleased and flattered at the friendly interest implicit in a question such as "Why do you have so many children?" or "Did you retire voluntarily or were you forced out, and aren't you getting bored?"

So you would think, wouldn't you, that everyone who dislikes this would refrain from doing it to others, thus eliminating the problem?

No, Miss Manners unfortunately knows better than that. Her world is full of people who are furious at their guests for not answering invitations but have no trouble explaining that their hosts don't expect such a hopelessly old-fashioned thing as a definite answer anymore.

But she is still puzzled about what enjoyment the questioners could possibly get from all this.

Suppose you were to go around and find out, through careful research, how old everybody you meet is and how much they paid for their houses. And each person with what you considered a physical oddity informed you in detail why he or she limped, was tall, had red hair or was left-handed. And all single people explained to you why they were single, all married people explained how they shared household chores, and every adult stated a rationale for the existence or nonexistence of children. And upon greeting someone, you were able to find out immediately how old each piece of clothing he or she wore was, where it was bought and for how much.

What would you have, then -- a full, rich, interesting life? Insights into the nature of humanity?

Then why doesn't everyone cut out all this investigative nonsense and go back to the system in which it was off bounds to ferret information out of people and each person was allowed to volunteer topics he wished to discuss?

In the meantime, however, Miss Manners has to deal with the etiquette problem of those who are asked questions they don't want to answer.

Her rules are that one should certainly not give in, but that one cannot be rude, and her standard method is to answer a question other than the one that has been asked. ("How much rent do you pay?" "This is a marvelous neighborhood; I found the best grocer.")

She has kindly been aided in the task by additional suggestions from gentle readers. Unfortunately, she has had to rule out on grounds of impoliteness retorts such as "I'm old enough not to answer a silly question like 'How old are you?' " and "Are you insane?" (by a reader who says she has now solved the problem of inquiries about pregnancy by becoming a septuagenarian).

But others passed the test:

"I thought you might enjoy my mother's rejoinder when someone asked her my age. I was in college at the time, and her reply, without missing a beat, was 'Oh, he's about my age.' "

"To the constantly asked question, 'Do you work?' I reply, 'Not for financial remuneration.' I simply do nonremunerative activities such as child rearing and civilizing, family management and occasional free-lance writing."

"One can give oneself plenty of time to think of a response by turning one's astonishment at having been asked an intrusive question to one's advantage, making it part of the response:

"First, blank surprise, and then disinterested curiosity directed at the questioner -- a look of 'What is this phenomenon, anyway?'

"If your questioner is so crass as to repeat the question during this long pause, there's nothing wrong with saying, 'Your question surprised me.'

"I could fill a book with possible verbal responses, some of them from childhood conventions. If the things you think of during this time are ones that you are too well-bred to utter but which amuse you slightly, all the better.

"But the important point is that you don't answer promptly, but wait. That usually makes the point. If you blush and look hurt, that does no harm.

"You could of course say, 'That's a painful question' or 'That's a very personal question' or 'That's an offensive question.' But I think it is better to mime that part of your response." After my brother was hospitalized for surgery, his live-in girlfriend sent all family members thank-you notes for visiting him during his stay. His only daughter was totally outraged and is no longer speaking to her. I'm sure the girlfriend meant no harm -- in fact, meant well. Was she out of line?

It is quite a novelty for Miss Manners to hear of someone who has managed to get seriously out of line by the act of writing thank-you letters, especially when it is entirely possible that the lady meant no harm. Allow Miss Manners to extend her congratulations.

By demonstrating that she does the honors for the couple, your brother's friend has also, perhaps inadvertently, announced that she is his only intimate. Hospitals distinguish between family and other visitors, and she has attempted to put herself in the former category and the actual relatives in the latter.

But even a wife would be presumptuous to write anything more than a "Jason asked me to let you know that he was grateful . . . " letter to other members of the family for gathering at the bedside of one of their own. Your brother's best hope for a peaceful recovery is to put out the word that she was merely expressing his own feelings, when he didn't feel up to writing. My cousin, who is like a sister to me, has asked me to be her matron of honor. She was my maid of honor. Although I am several months pregnant and will be quite large at the time of her wedding, my cousin and I feel that in this day and age, my condition should be no hindrance.

However, my aunt -- her mother -- objects, saying that my appearance will be a blemish on the overall beauty of the ceremony, as well as generally embarrassing to the family because of its being socially incorrect or undignified. I should note that this aunt currently holds an undeserved (believe me!) grudge against me and other members of my immediate family, which may be contributing to her sense of indignity.

I object to the idea that a pregnant woman is inevitably ugly, and as I do not anticipate feeling embarrassed about my condition, I see no reason not to go ahead with what my cousin wishes. But I certainly do not want to do anything that would universally be considered ill-mannered.

Rest assured, then, that there is nothing ill-mannered about being pregnant. The rule is that one must begin and end a pregnancy in relative privacy, but that the state itself is perfectly presentable.

Therefore, there is no reason, short of any possibility of your own physical discomfort, that you should not be your cousin's matron of honor. It would certainly be nice if your cousin could persuade her mother to accept the choice graciously, and even nicer if the occasion were used to clear up that old grudge.

However, Miss Manners does not care for your argument in favor of your participation, any more than she likes your aunt's against it.

Whether pregnancy is beautiful or ugly, or whether you or any other members of the bridal party are beautiful or ugly when not pregnant is not a proper issue for deciding who is to be in a wedding. The appearance of a bride's attendants should be pleasing to her because the people are dear to her, not because they will set off her own looks, and to everyone else as a charming portrait of friendship rather than a parade of matched beauties. 1986, United Feature Syndicate Inc.