When a victim of bad manners reports an etiquette violation to Miss Manners, she assumes that the person wants more than a ruling that he or she was treated badly. The hope is for revenge or for protection against its happening again.
Often Miss Manners has to explain, wearily, that etiquette does not condone fighting rudeness with rudeness. "Well, he started it" is not an excuse for bad manners, even in the playpen.
It is not that she believes that a commitment to manners renders one totally helpless. The august institution of Etiquette no longer offers such an elaborate form of retaliatory propriety as the duel, but it does not require courteous people always to yield to the wishes of others. They may politely refuse to do so; they may politely assert their rights; and they may politely indicate their desire to disassociate themselves from rude actions or rude people.
In the interests of good manners, Miss Manners is more than willing to teach people methods of doing this.
She patiently advises them how to reply to an insult -- particularly the newly prevalent form of insult that is disguised as impartial criticism or compassionate advice, such as "You know you really ought to take off some weight." To say "You don't look so hot yourself" would be rude; the polite response is a freezing "Thank you -- how kind of you to say so."
She demonstrates the stony half-smile that shows that one considers another person's bigoted joke or mean gossip to be contemptible, not funny.
She explains how to repeat "No, thank you -- I'm afraid I can't" to people who attempt to bludgeon one into doing something, without adding any excuses to the refusal, because the matter is not a legitimate one for debate.
And finally she points out that there is nothing impolite in summoning assistance -- whether from the manager of a commercial establishment or, when that is appropriate, the law -- to deal with transgressions that are not only rude but also unfair or illegal.
But business is much too brisk. Whether people want to stamp out rudeness by being rude themselves or are willing to use the acceptable weapons of cold politeness, too many of them are taking too great an interest in regulating one another's behavior.
The essence of etiquette is to be responsible for one's own behavior and that of one's minor children. Frankly, Miss Manners would like to see a great deal more of that going around.
The rude actions of others must certainly be contained if they seriously intrude on one's own happiness. Usually, the closer one is to the transgressor, the easier it should be to explain politely what is bothering one. Much rudeness is a matter of ignorance rather than malevolence.
Miss Manners would only like to see a more careful selection of the battles that are attempted. It is impractical to do etiquette combat with everyone who behaves badly, however little it may affect you.
Of course, this happens to be Miss Manners' lifelong interest. But even she does not go around correcting, much less punishing, people on a free-lance basis. She offers advice to those who seek it, and she offers general advice to the society, but she does not hand out tickets on the street.
A great many people wish to do that. They want to know what they can do about the rudeness of other drivers, fellow guests and business and social acquaintances. Some of the transgressions are momentarily annoying -- a driver has cut in out of turn or made a rude gesture. Others are simply observed -- a fellow guest doesn't eat properly.
But even if correcting others' behavior unasked were not, in itself, an etiquette violation, the sad fact is that you cannot give instant etiquette lessons that will casually change people's behavior for the better. Such engagements are only too likely to lead, instead, to further rudeness.
Miss Manners would like to recommend a dignified, traditional response that has pretty much fallen out of use: Rising Above It.
Let the drivers or the guests go on their way without any sign that you recognized their errors, except that inward satisfaction of knowing better than they how to behave.
And let us save our energy for the major manners crusades.
1987, United Feature Syndicate Inc.