A method for making short work of traffic annoyances came into practice last summer on the Southern California highways. Several people responded to what they considered pesky driving by shooting into the offending cars.

Miss Manners should have known it would come to that. She often hears from Gentle Readers who complain that other people's driving is rude, and then ask her permission to curse, make obscene gestures, punch drivers, kick cars or run them off the road, all for the purpose of instructing these people in proper motoring. That permission, which Miss Manners suspects is sought retroactively, is always denied.

But opening fire on other drivers and their passengers was an idea that had hitherto been spared her. Once it was launched, however, it quickly became common practice, resulting in numerous injuries and several deaths.

The grievances that prompted these murderous rages were minor questions of highway courtesy. Alleged offenses included failure to respond immediately to a signal requesting permission to pass, not moving past a stop sign, and pulling in front of another vehicle so that it had to slow down.

Perhaps Miss Manners was not consulted on this method of instruction because it was supposed she would not approve. She has consistently outlawed rudeness as a weapon for dealing with other people's real or perceived rudeness, and has also been known to cite the safety hazard of engaging in any feuding on the road, whatever the circumstances of the case. It was not likely that she would care for violence as a method of encouraging others to behave.

When the psychologists appeared on the scene to explain why people had engaged in such behavior, they came up with: Broken homes. Television. Narcissism. Stress related to traffic congestion. Stress related to other problems, such as domestic disputes. A feeling of limitless power from being in command of an automobile.

But no one mentioned manners, or rather the lack of them. And when Miss Manners began to do so, she was given those patronizing little smiles that mean, "Yes, dear, I suppose it is bad manners to shoot people," signifying that they don't care to take the time to argue with her sweet but lightweight cause before they resume their serious discussions about an important problem.

People seem to have some trouble believing that manners could ever be a matter of life and death. They are frills for fancy occasions, it is widely assumed, and perhaps quite nice in their way if you go in for that sort of thing, but unnecessary if you don't.

Miss Manners begs to differ.

It is true that the outward forms of etiquette particular to a time and place are, by definition, superficial. These arbitrary rules enable people to follow a workable pattern they all know, rather than continually to engage in free-for-all contests of one person's wishes against another's.

But following etiquette also assumes and demonstrates commitment to the underlying idea that one belongs to a society and must therefore temper one's individual impulses according to its customs and needs.

Etiquette anarchy -- whether it is ignoring simple courtesies or the deepest obligations, whether one initiates it or practices it in response to the behavior of others -- rejects the obligation to so control oneself and extols the supremacy of one's personal desires.

This attitude was not uncommon on the road before murder was introduced; it is also the premise of those who wish to punish other drivers through cursing or kicking. It comes of an even wider belief that manners -- the habit of controlling individual behavior for the general harmony -- are no longer necessary.

But this does not make a general case for individual freedom, because it contains a firm belief in the obligation of others. Even the most lawless drivers realize that they would be threatened if everyone were allowed to make his own rules. Their real policy, therefore, is: You have got to behave, so that I can do whatever I want.

The odd but inevitable indignation that other people don't behave themselves creates a feeling of justification in punishing them, however unlawfully. Often, one hears the latter practices referred to as "teaching them manners."

Hardly. But the proof that manners are desperately needed is that the only other method to deal with minor frustrations and infractions is violence.

My boyfriend and I have moved into an apartment together, and every time I set the table, I give each of us a fork, spoon and knife.

Well, my boyfriend has the idea that if we don't have a dessert, we don't need a spoon on the table. I tell him it is the proper way of setting the table. This question has a bet depending on it, so please tell us who is right.

He is.

Oh, dear. Miss Manners just hates to spread disharmony at the dinner table by taking sides, and is only forced to do so in the service of Truth in Etiquette. She hopes the gentleman will be gracious in victory and take into consideration that you are disarmed, now that Miss Manners has taken your spoon away from you.

At a recent lunch, my mother and I ordered pa~te'. The silver on the table was: salad and luncheon forks, bread-and-butter spreader, the usual complement of spoons, and luncheon knife. No utensils were provided with the pa~te'.

I used my butter spreader, plopping portions of pa~te' on toast. Mother used her salad fork, eating the pa~te' and bread in alternate nibbles.

What is the proper service for pa~te'? I sincerely doubt that I'll mend my habits if I'm incorrect, but I am curious about how and with what you suggest pa~te'-ing.

This is a more pleasant duty: You are slightly more right than your mother, but she is not really wrong. While pa~te' is generally eaten as a spread on bread or crackers, it may also be considered a salad and eaten with a fork.