On a slow summer day, Miss Manners is willing to call two letters a trend. She has here two letters from Gentle Readers who find themselves unable to accept apologies gracefully.
"If I say, 'Oh, that's all right -- think nothing of it,' that makes it sound as if they really didn't do anything wrong and are therefore now free to do the same thing again," writes the first.
"On the other hand, if they are gracious enough to apologize, I wish to be gracious enough to accept. How do you let them know that you are glad they recognized the mistake?"
The second describes an incident in which a friend who stood her and her husband up for dinner apologized with "a very weak reason," but she also characterizes as weak her own "Oh, that's all right," when "it wasn't really all right -- we had been hurt by her thoughtlessness.
" 'I accept your apology' sounds highhanded to me," she continues, "but what I was really thinking -- 'You should apologize' -- would have done qj nothing to preserve our friendship, which I still value."
To make this a full-fledged trend, Miss Manners will place it in the context of too closely analyzed conventional phrases. Polite formulae are best understood as ritual utterances, not in terms of their literal meaning.
The break with traditions -- that dreadful couple of decades when people believed that learning what had gone on before in their own civilization was irrelevant, hypocritical, pretentious and bad for the mental health of children -- damaged our ability to understand these things. So now people are trying to puzzle them out, examining the words carefully but missing the point.
Miss Manners does not believe that "Oh, that's all right" truly exonerates a wrongdoer, any more than the French answer to "Thank you" -- "Il n'y a pas de quoi" -- is really intended to argue that there was nothing for which to give thanks.
Rather, "That's all right" is meant to convey that the apology has been accepted: "Things are all right now, back to normal, because you have apologized and I will consider your record clean."
A person who truthfully believed that an apology was not necessary said, "Oh, not at all, it was my fault" or "Please don't even mention it."
However, that folk custom allowed for different degrees of acceptance of apologies.
A cheerful "Oh, that's all right," delivered with a warm smile, meant "Considering your generally good behavior, I wasn't going to make an issue over something so trivial, but now I won't even remember this tiny blemish."
At the other extreme, a tight-lipped "That's quite all right" (without the mitigating "Oh") meant "It's a good thing you retreated from this, because you were in deep trouble; now, out of the goodness of my heart, I will put you on probation."
Miss Manners would like to see these subtleties practiced once again. But those who cannot quite manage it may also say, with a convincingly warm and indulgent smile, "I forgive you." The friendly manner is absolutely required here to take the edge off the words.
While we are at it, let us practice other nonaggressive ways of replying to some of the newer standard phrases. In addition to puzzling people because they do not bear being scrutinized for logic, these phrases often arouse a disproportionate amount of hostility.
But it is strictly against Miss Manners' rules to claim an intended politeness, no matter how awkward, nonsensical or unhallowed by usage, as a pretext for nastiness.
She forbids you to snarl at those who say:
"Have a good day." The simplest reply is "Thank you; you, too," but those who despise the phrase are allowed to substitute a simple, old-fashioned, time-honored "Good day" or "Good day to you, sir (or madam)." Secret comfort may be taken, if you wish, in the knowledge that the latter phrase used to be said as a dismissal.
"There you go." As this is said in conclusion of performing a service, the reply is "Thank you."
The reply to "Thank you" is "You're welcome," but a person who receives instead the reply "Thank you" may bring the exchange to a halt with either silence or his own "You're welcome."
"No problem." The reply is a silent smile. It is also wisdom to realize that not everything requires an answer.
What is the proper way for a couple to go down a flight of steps? Man first, lady following? Also, what is the proper way to go up a flight of steps? It is not wide enough for walking side by side.
A gentleman descends a flight of stairs before a lady but follows her going up. This is based on the idea of allowing his body to cushion her fall. Miss Manners does not wish to debate it philosophically. Nor does she want to hear about fears that a gentleman will take advantage of this position to peer up a lady's skirt.
What are the manners of today's business world? My husband was recently invited for dinner at the home of a client, a single gentleman who has invited us both to business affairs in the past.
The other guests were an employe of my husband and another business contact with his girlfriend. Because my husband did not want to impose on his client, I spent the evening at home with a book.
In similar situations, I have assumed that exclusions of one's spouse were an oversight and have asked if I could include my husband. Perhaps I assume too much.
Nobody knows what the manners of today's business world are, if any.
The semibusiness dinner, in which it is considered a treat to bring along a private partner for a free meal at the expense of his or her being bored by business talk, is something no one agrees upon. Some people simply refuse to participate, in order to have a truly private life; others, like your husband, meticulously treat it as a business event; and still others, the majority, try to extract what social pleasure they can from it.
The only solution is to ask. It may be assuming too much to believe that not inviting a spouse is an oversight, but there is nothing wrong with saying, "Is this strictly business, or is my husband (wife, spouse-equivalent) invited also?" 1986, United Feature Syndicate Inc.