Rudenesses that violate the American concepts of fairness, honest trade and individual dignity are the etiquette transgressions that people are least able to endure politely, Miss Manners recognizes.
We believe in the principle of first come, first served -- and then someone cuts into line, or abandons a palpable guest or customer in favor of one who cuts in by telephone.
We believe in value for money -- and those who ought to be providing it argue unapologetically that they're not responsible, or they are going on lunch break, or it's the computer's fault. We believe in the autonomy of the individual -- and find ourselves the targets of insults and advice from acquaintances and passers-by alike about every health, esthetic or family decision we make.
Miss Manners shares all these basic beliefs. But she also believes in good manners. And she cannot therefore be made to condone maniacal behavior on the grounds that such violations inspired it.
Those who behave with admirable restraint, quietly following rules in the interests of general harmony, naturally ought to be treated fairly in return. Miss Manners not only agrees, but is willing to pat them all on the head and issue good-behavior medals for observing what ought to be minimal standards.
If she were, instead, to accept provocation as an excuse for retaliatory rudeness, she would soon have to close up etiquette shop. Or rather, she would have to bring in the porch furniture and barricade the door, while the world outside hurled insults and worse.
Provocation is everywhere. The mildest citizen, most studiously minding his or her own business, can hardly escape being driven nearly to distraction by the shoves, taunts and demands of others. Self-effacement won't help. The politer response to "Excuse me," these days, seems to be, "Well, watch it, will you?"
Yet Miss Manners is sorely tried by would-be etiquetteers who make legitimate complaints about other people's outrageous behavior, and then triumphantly recount how they smashed 'em one, in order to further the cause of good manners. The challenge of manners is not so much to be nice to someone whose favor and/or person you covet (although more people need to be reminded of that than one would suppose), as to be exposed to the bad manners of others without imitating them.
But that is not to say that one should not fight back. Miss Manners understands perfectly well that one reason retaliatory rudeness is popular is that the only alternative imagined is saintly (or wimpy) sufferance.
Not at all. Polite fighting back requires discipline and often patience, but it actually works better.
The first line of defense is to offer a face-saving way for the offender to retreat from the offense. "I beg your pardon, but the back of the line is over there," said in a loud, clear voice for the benefit of everyone present, is more effective than a push accompanied by "Hey, where do you think you're going?"
Another use of politeness to counter rudeness is to say, with freezing correctness, "You are so kind to take an interest," when asked why you have so many children; or to offer a devastatingly simple "Thank you" in response to the information that you are overweight. Replying "You should talk!" does not have the same effect.
Transgressions that cannot be let pass so easily because they have consequences require more persistent politeness. "Well, then, I will be getting in touch with someone who can help me. What is your name?" But no boss is going to listen sympathetically to the complaint of someone his own employe reported as shouting obscenities or threats.
Miss Manners does not lack enthusiasm for fighting rudeness, just because she refuses to fight the enemy by joining its ranks.
I was wondering if it is proper to eat all the food on your plate at a dinner party. People say it makes a statement to leave some food on your plate, even if it is delicious.
Funny you should ask. The statement, as articulated in a Victorian etiquette rule, was "Leave something for Miss Manners." This was not so much a welfare project for Your Devoted Servant as an indication that one had been amply fed.
However, Miss Manners has long since abolished the rule. Throwing away good food for the sake of manners offended her, and besides, she wasn't that hungry.
You may now properly finish everything on your plate provided you do not do it in such a way as to damage the finish on the china.
What is the proper response if you've sent a sympathy card to someone, and when you see them later, they say, "Thank you so much for the card -- it was sweet of you." Do you say, "Thank you," or what?
The ordinary response to "Thank you" is "You're welcome." But in this case, the courtesy offered -- the card -- is so slight in comparison with the reason -- the death -- that one instead reiterates the sentiments: "Oh, I was so sorry to hear of your mother's death; I remember her fondly; you've been very much in my thoughts," etc.
1987, United Feature Syndicate Inc.