Do you really want the volume up that high?

Consider that Miss Manners is not saying this on a public beach, nor in a threatening tone. Speaking in normal, even ladylike, tones, she is referring to the psychological din rather than the actual noise.

What's that? Yes, the actual noise is (Ummm? -- can't hear you over that infernal racket) -- is dreadful. Dreadful! Anybody who cares to campaign to get mechanically reproduced noise eliminated from public spaces, in the way that smoke is slowly becoming contained, will have her quiet support.

But it seems to her that the problem is part of a more general belief that nothing unamplified can be heard.

And so everything -- most especially, everything negative -- is said many times more forcefully than it need be. Minor irritations bring out the strongest possible obscenities. Arguments cannot be settled without lawsuits. Complaints are not registered without threats.

Screaming, if not actual violence, is thought necessary to battle the tendency of children to be, well, childish. Lovers admit that uncertainty about the possibility of being deserted helps prevent them from behaving callously. And since such uncertainty is quaintly supposed to be missing in marriage, spouses must make do by characterizing adjustment difficulties as terminal incompatibility.

Miss Manners admits that there is a place for exaggeration.

In the language of childhood, "I'm freezing to death" means "I'm chilly;" "I'm burning up" means "It's warm" and "I'm starving" means "May I have a snack before dinner?"

Even for an adult, the conventional announcement that one has sniffles is, "I think I'm dying of pneumonia."

And certainly no one should ever claim to be mildly in love.

But by conducting all of our conflicts at top pitch we have, indeed, created a society in which statements made at true value are often ignored. "I'm so sorry, but would you mind not doing that?" is too tame for someone who expects to inspire remarks more like "Keep that up and I'll kill you."

Miss Manners would like to lower the volume. She is not attempting to interfere with what is being said, but only to put all such discourse at a more tolerable level.

One can see, in a controlled environment, that the quieter appeal is more effective than the indiscriminate, all-out attack.

Couples who have never abandoned the forms of politeness, no matter what the strain, can rattle each other more thoroughly with a hurt look or a tightening of the lips than scene-makers can by destroying all the china. Parents who have obeyed as well as instituted household rules of decorum can instill more remorse with a raised eyebrow than less controlled parents can with a raised hand.

Miss Manners is proposing that this principle be adopted for general usage. It will take some cooperation.

Between two people, the one who speaks quietly is more effective than the one who shouts, but in a shouting crowd, the normal person has a hard time being heard. So does the shouter, for that matter, so the competing racket keeps getting worse.

But a society that pretends to worship honesty and plain-speaking, and to despise euphemism and false posturing ought to be anxious to rid itself of such unpleasant hyperbole.

Once everyone agrees, it should be easy to substitute "I disagree" for "You're crazy," "I plan to oppose this" for "You do, and I'll sue the pants off you," "Excuse me" for "Watch it!" and "I have not found the service satisfactory" for "This is a clip joint."

"How can you be such a disgusting slob?" is not as clear as "You left your socks on the floor," and "I'll get you fired" is ineffective compared with "I plan to go to your boss with this."

Notice that Miss Manners is not asking people to stop disagreeing, quibbling, fighting or participating in household skirmishes. The emotional content can remain the same, and opponents will be just as equally (or unequally) matched.

She is only trying to turn the whole thing down so that maybe even the shouters can hear themselves think.

Q: At a dinner party for 10 people, the place setting for each included three forks, three knives and four teaspoons.

I picked up a fork to eat my salad, and the host screamed over the table, to my utter embarrassment, "Jim, you picked up the wrong fork." I felt awful. I think it was in bad taste. Do you agree?

A: Yes, but what do you expect of people who think teaspoons belong on the dinner table and salad should be served early in the meal?

Never mind the details of that; Miss Manners is only citing them to show that people who don't know a subject themselves are often the first to criticize others for what they believe are infractions.

Correcting the table manners of a guest is a violation of etiquette greater than anything one can do with a fork, short of stabbing one's host in the throat with it. What makes it a particularly heinous offense is the unfortunate general belief that etiquette arbiters do this -- that, indeed, etiquette only exists at all to give them an excuse to humiliate others.