When is it proper to notice another person's gender?

In the old days, the answer to that would have been a ringing "I beg your pardon!" Ah, they had wonderful expressions in the old days, as Miss Manners is fond of recalling.

But the old attitudes were not always as good. In this case, the real answer to the question, beneath that splendid remark, was that one noticed a gentleman's gender socially, but regarded him according to his professional identification in the working world.

One noticed a lady's gender always.

Let Miss Manners explain what she means. She has the uneasy idea that this is beginning to sound ever so slightly soiled. And she is not even talking about office romance or sexual harassment or anything quite that intriguing.

It is only, once again, a matter of manners as symbolism, and knowing what is appropriate for work and what for play.

The old system was based on the idea that primary business was done by gentlemen, and the ladies were only there in an auxiliary capacity. (Miss Manners' quaint habit of always saying "ladies" and "gentlemen" where the modern usage would be "men" and "women" is going to get her into trouble in this little argument. Please bear with her. She will try to control herself.)

Among businessmen, precedence was clear. The boss outranked the employes, and everybody knew exactly what the hierarchy was all the way down the line. Certain courtesies were shown in each direction -- one let one's superior go through the door first, and one also let one's superior pay for lunch.

But businesswomen were seen in a quasi-social light. No matter how hard they worked, that social identity clung to them, as hostesses, belles, matrons or old maids. Even well-meaning male colleagues saw and reacted to gender rather than rank.

That is what all those fights were about in the offices of the '70s, as the businesswomen increased in number and identified their problems. But when they objected to being asked to make coffee, given personal compliments, deferred to at doorways or prevented from paying expenses, they seemed to be condemning manners.

Not at all. Miss Manners, who wouldn't stand by when anyone of any gender attacked manners, assures you that the objections were valid (provided they were as politely made as other legitimate complaints about office procedure).

The offense was, properly speaking, not the fact that manners were observed in the office, but that social manners were applied to some workers and business manners to others.

In this situation, there is a clear implication that when the ladies are around, serious business is suspended. Or that they are intruding while others are trying to do serious business. This is not helpful to the careers of businesswomen.

Miss Manners insists that business be performed courteously, but the courtesy standards of the social realm do not necessarily apply. It is rude to discuss money socially, for example, and somewhat difficult to do business without doing so. Competitiveness, calling attention to one's achievements and taking serious objection to other people's views are all social errors, but are mainstays of the business world.

The Great Businessman's Panic of the '70s seems to be over. That was when the poor gentlemen were going to pieces in situations where a lady's rank clearly indicated that she ought to be paying for lunch but the only manners they knew when ladies ate with them were the manners of a date.

Bill-paying is even changing socially, and Miss Manners has not gotten one of those cries for help from the expense-account restaurant crowd in some time.

Let us therefore get to work on the other rules:

In the workplace, people do not compliment one another on their attractiveness -- only on their health. As a pleasantry accompanying business, it is all right to say, "You're looking awfully rested after your vacation," but not "I love your suit," much less "I love your hair."

This applies not only to the middle-class workplace but to anyone in a professional situation. One does not tell one's waitress that she is pretty; she is not there to be personally appraised by the customers.

Ladies First, as a system of precedence, never belonged in the work world. It is slowly changing in the social realm to precedence based on age, although Miss Manners insists on a grandmother clause that will entitle her to go through the door first for the rest of her life.

She trusts that the idea that the businesswomen are responsible for all quasi-social hospitality is disappearing.

None of these problems would arise if everyone refrained from noticing gender on the job. You are supposed to look at someone and think "vice president," "plumber," "driver," "balloon restorer," not "boy" or "girl."

And what if you can't help noticing? Well, office hours are not around the clock, you know.

Could you please advise me of the meaning and origin of trains on bridal gowns?

The meaning? Even in weddings, not everything is symbolic. A train is just a train, not a signal that one is hopping aboard a new life.

The origin of the modern formal white wedding dress is Victorian, and in those days, both evening and day dresses often had trains. Don't they still?

How do I know if I should call people by their first names or by their titles?

Recommended Method: Call the person by his or her title and surname. If you are told, "Oh, no, please call me Joe," then you will know to use the first name.

Not Recommended Method: Use the first name. If the person draws up stiffly and says, "I am Dr. Smythers, if you please," you will know that you should have used the title and last name.

1987, United Feature Syndicate Inc.