A gentleman of Miss Manners' acquaintance, aged 18 months, often finds himself in perplexing situations.
He cannot dislodge the toy he wants from his toy box, and people who could easily do it just stand by, watching, sometimes even occupying themselves by taking movies of his struggles rather than helping.
He cannot go where he wishes because smiling grown-ups throw up roadblocks and watch with apparent amusement to see what he will do.
Objects he wants to examine are, just at the moment of grasping, placed beyond his reach.
It is not an easy life, but not an unusual one either, among his peers. What impresses Miss Manners is the way this particular gentleman chooses to deal with such difficulties.
He studies each problem, trying a variety of possible solutions. But while his rate of success is probably no better or worse than that of others in his age group, there is a big difference in what he chooses not to do.
He does not whine, cry or tug demandingly at people in order to persuade them to help. He does not strike out at onlookers, to shift the burden of coping with his problems onto them.
(Before anyone concludes that Miss Manners has been befuddled by emotion, or has misplaced her glasses and mistaken a Cabbage Patch doll for a human being, she hastens to say that the child has never carried this policy to any such extreme as refusing to signal hunger or pain. We are talking about dealing with whims, not necessities.)
In sum, this otherwise normal child simply refuses to consider that the most effective way of solving his every trivial problem would be to make a nuisance of himself.
Miss Manners doubts that his wishes are less strong than other children's; the only difference is that he has ruled out making a spectacle of his frustration as a tool for enlisting help.
Miss Manners interprets this as a matter of honor. And she wonders how many grown-ups can demonstrate as much of that rare and shining quality.
Instead, an increasing number of grown-ups have developed the habit of getting their way by making nuisances of themselves.
Rather than setting about solving their share of life's problems, they take to battering others with their difficulties in the hope of producing guilt or mercy or weakness or a simple desire for peace and quiet, which will make those people help them out.
Some are given to whining that they are sensitive, vulnerable and generally so bruised by life as to require special reassurance; crossing them would be tantamount to cruelty. "I need a lot of love," these types plead, as if the rest of us can make do on vitamins.
Others advocate screaming, making scenes and issuing threats as a way of intimidating people to give them what they want; giving in comes to seem easier than tolerating the nuisance.
Some are always coming up with special circumstances, explaining as they push ahead of others in line that they happen to be in a particular hurry, or pleading that they are living especially overburdened lives, to gain extra consideration from those who are presumably leading emptier lives in which time means nothing.
Still others brandish their own incompetence as a proud claim on the assistance of those who are implied to be more suited to performing such mundane tasks as running errands, making loans or cleaning up for their presumed betters.
It is unfortunate that these techniques often work as well for adults as they do for cranky toddlers. Oh, let's go ahead and give him what he wants so he'll be quiet, people reason.
Like toddlers, they become confirmed in the belief that being a nuisance is the easiest way of coping with life. It is not, of course, the way to make oneself genuinely loved or capable of mature problem-solving.
It also happens to be dishonorable. Miss Manners is not claiming that any child ought to know that, but she is proud to know at least one who does.
Q: I have been criticized because I use just my fork to break soft food, such as fish and pastas, into bite-size pieces, instead of using a knife and fork. This has become quite a ridiculous issue.
A: On the contrary, you have a valuable skill, for which Miss Manners commends you.
It is actually incorrect to eat these foods with a meat knife, and one is so seldom given a fish knife or salad knife these days. Therefore, your method is the only proper alternative, and you are one of the few people who seem to be able to cope adroitly with the task. The rest cheat, or slide the food around until they get gravy all over the table. And those people call you ridiculous?
Q: Help! And soon! Who in the bridal party decides the color of the bridesmaids' and the maid of honor's gowns? Does the bride choose, or all of them, or the maid of honor?
A: Miss Manners hesitates to say that the bride chooses, because there is altogether too much bridal tyranny around already. No doubt that is why you are screaming for help.
Let us rather say that the bride should submit her choices both to the wedding party and to her mother, who is usually the hostess of this event. Only serious objections to her choice should be voiced -- but those should be heeded. Forcing one's closest friends to wear clothes they hate is not in the proper nuptial spirit.
Q: At restaurants, is it correct to remove the plates of each person as he finishes, while the others are still eating?
I find myself being more and more upset by this, especially when I am the hostess. I am embarrassed to see others hurry to finish, once the first plate is removed.
I have discussed this with others at our club and find mixed opinions. Some people say they want empty plates removed immediately. I think it is rude.
A: Interestingly enough, formal service at different periods has also been subjected to this disagreement about whether plates should be removed as each guest signals he has finished by the placement of fork and knife at the 10:20 p.m. position.
Of course, in formal service, the plate is always replaced immediately by a clean, empty one, not, as in restaurants, by a tableful of crumbs or the next course, already on its own plate.
But even in formal service, Miss Manners is squarely on the side of the wait-till-everyone's-done school. Sitting in front of one's own emptied plate cannot be as offensive as feeling that one must hurry along to catch up, or attending a dinner where the courses get all out of whack.
You should inform a restaurant of the service you want, rather than submit to its choice of practices. Too many people are intimidated by the strange idea that restaurants are courtrooms of cuisine, rather than commercial establishments selling cooked food.
Q: At a party the other day, a distant relative made arrangements with a friend for transportation to a luncheon they and other relatives were attending, to which I was not invited.
I wouldn't care if they made their arrangements out of earshot, but they made them while the three of us were sitting together, as if I were invisible, or made of stone with no feelings.
I know I'm unusually thin-skinned, so maybe this type of incident doesn't bother other people. What do you say when this sort of thing is done, besides "Goodbye," which is not always possible when relatives are involved?
A: There happens to be a very sturdy old etiquette rule against ever discussing a social engagement, future or past, in front of anyone who was not invited. This rule was not made to be applied only to the thin-skinned. No one enjoys sitting in the middle of a conversation of which he cannot be a part.
The polite response is a cool "If you want to talk privately, I'll excuse myself," followed by your departure to join a less exclusive, or more polite, conversation.
Undoubtedly, your relatives will tax you with being thin-skinned. The thick-skinned seem to believe that people with normal-width skins don't mind being the victims of rudeness.