Considering the frenzy of interest in consumer goods in this society, it is astonishing to Miss Manners that so many people presume that the gentle art of manners is based on a preoccupation with money.
Etiquette, it is widely believed, consists of forms of behavior requiring fortunes in silverware, evening clothing and unwieldy vehicles. Most people only feel they need etiquette on occasions when they are spending a great deal of money -- putting on a wedding, for example.
Otherwise, they can apparently make do with rudeness.
Dear, dear. You can imagine how upsetting Miss Manners finds this.
She doesn't know which offends her more -- the people who seek to demonstrate their genuineness by eschewing manners or those who are scrambling to learn them to serve their social ambitions. They both end up rude.
The truth is that there is very little relationship between manners and money. Certainly, Miss Manners has never noticed any preponderance of politeness on the part of the rich.
Good manners are, first of all, free. And that is not generally true of status symbols.
Secondly, they cover all forms of outward human behavior, from those needed for the most routine daily encounters in households or on highways, to the special ones for special occasions.
And thirdly, the consequences of violating them in ordinary life are more unpleasant than the effects of small technical errors on formal occasions, when it would be rude of other people present to notice.
The same people who say they disdain manners are outraged when they are treated rudely by those who are of their own circumstances or whose services they are buying.
Why, then, does etiquette's reputation for abetting snobbery persist?
Miss Manners attributes part of it to the fact that one always thinks of familiar behavior as being simply natural, and strange behavior as etiquette. Everyday behavior is therefore classified as nice or mean, rather than good manners or bad, while the self-consciousness one has on special occasions leads one to identify their traditional practices as manners.
But there is also a mistaken belief that knowledge and possession of expensive things are themselves a demonstration of propriety. People sometimes try to lead Miss Manners into condemning inexpensive goods -- especially clothing made of synthetic materials -- as "tacky."
If "tacky" is intended to mean "improper," they are quite wrong. Propriety and impropriety have nothing to do with how much one can afford to spend. That someone does not wear expensive fabrics has nothing whatever to do with the quality of the manners that person may exhibit.
If"tacky" refers to taste, then there is a connection with money. Rich people may have not just the money to spend, but more leisure to learn to distinguish quality in material objects. Miss Manners has nothing whatever against such an educational activity, which can be great fun and is not unknown among people who do not have money. Since the invention of the museum, people can study and enjoy things without owning them -- and the rich should remember that their servants usually know more about the quality of their silver and linens, from cleaning them, than the owners do.
Noneof this is within the province of manners, however. Etiquette's interest in taste, as that applies to consumer items, is chiefly in combating ostentation. What is improper is the diamond bracelet worn for tennis, the car or house referred to as a "limousine" or "mansion," the designer label -- any inappropriate display of wealth, or preoccupation with the cost of one's own or other people's possessions.
In fact, there is hardly anything more rude and vulgar than an active interest in whether someone else's clothes are made of synthetic materials.
My daughter would like to invite to her wedding a friend who happens to be homosexual, and his live-in friend. But his parents, who do not condone his life style, will also attend the wedding, and I am concerned that tension may result and spoil the atmosphere.
Am I wrong to suggest that my daughter invite her friend without his "partner"? Should I give in and hope for the best?
Let us certainly hope that no guests consider your daughter's wedding to be a proper arena for either condoning or condemning anyone's life style.
It is not even nice for people to speculate on the bridal couple's private behavior, much less the wedding guests'. Surely the gentleman's parents have other occasions for expressing their attitude toward his living arrangements. Anyone concerned who feels in danger of spoiling the wedding should decline the invitation.
In any case, the hosts' proper attitude is to assume that guests will behave themselves. If your daughter otherwise sees the gentleman and his partner as a social couple, she should treat them as one on this occasion.
1987, United Feature Syndicate Inc.