"I don't feel that my job is really who I am."
"Why should I be defined by somebody I happen to be married to?"
"I don't take my identity from my children."
Miss Manners would not quarrel with any of these statements (indeed, she tries to avoid talking at all to people who take that belligerent tone), if not for some peculiar circumstances.
1. These declarations were not made in reply to demands of how the speakers wished to be known to society at large or remembered to posterity, but in reply to such casual social overtures as "What do you do?" "Congratulations on your wife's promotion" and "What are your children doing these days?"
2. They were made by people whose subsequent conversation revealed that they accept the national belief that the choice of particular material objects -- clothing, automobiles, beverages -- represents calculated "statements" that serve as accurate clues to personality.
Wonderful. We have now reached the point where personal and professional connections are considered irrelevant to one's identity, the real key to the soul being written on one's sneakers or consumed as a soft drink.
The very idea that anything at all can be read so as to sum up instantly an entire person offends Miss Manners. Never mind whether it is business or domestic affiliations, or possessions -- she even objects to voluntarystatements of one's philosophy being used that way.
If your deepest beliefs can be put into three words so that they fit your bumper sticker, or your attitude toward life in one short word on your license plate, Miss Manners congratulates you and promises she will not try to probe them further.
Yet the notion that one can get an immediate understanding of a new acquaintance is almost as widespread as the opposite suspicion that one is always in danger of being unjustly pegged by others. The only issue under dispute seems to be which clues are truly revealing and which are not.
This is where people who call themselves realistic argue that dress and other spending habits define one for others, so that a clever person should manipulate them to "say" what he or she means to say.
Meanwhile, those who consider themselves sensitive are rebelling against offhand social inquiries, as if they were invasions of privacy from hostile courts of inquiry.
We shall have to have a new national consensus on what is nosy and what is not. There are indeed societies in which the facts of a person's life, such as age and income, are polite subjects for inquiry, but asking for opinions on the news topics of the day is rude; and others in which any personal conversation at all is unacceptable until friendships are established.
American manners traditionally allowed questions about jobs, family and opinions about politics or the weather, but not specific personal statistics, especially not any connected with money.
Those guidelines still seem to Miss Manners to be a reasonable compromise between the American enjoyment of casual conversation and offensive nosiness.
In her opinion, buying habits reveal next to nothing about people, and most of that is misleading. Store clerks suffer notoriously from the failure to understand the tradition of shabbiness among the very rich.
Occupationis perhaps more revealing. Not everyone has the luxury of choosing his or her job, but the general area of employment should provide some hint of one's interests. And that is really all most people require in answer to questions that are generally only designed to find a topic of conversation.
Miss Manners can think of a thousand reasons for not wishing to discuss one's work when out socially. But rather than take insult, one need only propose another topic.
Indignation about domestic affiliations has gotten ridiculous. Interest in placing a person in the community is legitimate, and inquiries about a person's family, on the assumption that people take pride in their relations, were always considered polite.
But whatever we decide upon, let us rid ourselves of the idea -- and the resulting hurt feelings -- that the purpose of opening a conversation with questions is to define an individual.
The fact is that it is impossible to find out about a person all at once. One has to put some work into it. Placing the person in the general scheme of things is only a taking-off point to finding out about his or her attitudes, interests, nature and disposition.
But oddly enough, there is a way to impress people immediately. And that is by demonstrating that one considers them worth the investment of time and attention it takes to find out what they are all about.
My relativeread a self-help book that she really liked and said I should read. I gave her no indication previously that I was interested in such a book and I am insulted that she thinks I should read it.
How do I refuse this book and the mothering it represents?
It is rude to refuse a present, unless you are positive it was intended as an insult. (A peculiar subdivision of this category is the diamond bracelet from a gentleman one hardly knows; that is an insult one refuses very sweetly. Unfortunately, that is not your problem.)
Although you are offended by this ill-chosen offering, that your relative herself used the book indicates it was not offered as an affront.
Miss Manners does not realize why more people are not aware that presents and advice may easily be accepted without ever being used. Every tot knows instinctively that the way to accept unwanted mothering is to say, "Certainly, Mother," and then do nothing about it.
Should your relative make the mistake of asking if you have read the book or changed your life in accord with its dictates, the polite reply is "Not yet, but I'm looking forward to it."
(c) 1986, United Feature Syndicate Inc.