"The husband accepted one day, and the wife declined on the next," reported a gentleman of Miss Manners' acquaintance who was trying to perform the great impossible modern social task of finding out who was coming to his party.
"What worries me is that they're always saying they never have time to talk to each other -- is she declining for both? I forgot to ask. I suspect he doesn't even know I talked to her.
"Then there was the office secretary who promised to give her boss the message, but when I called back a few days before the party because he hadn't replied, she could only tell me that she'd given him the message."
For goodness' sake. Who is in charge of keeping people's social records nowadays? Can't anyone give an authoritative yes or no?
Apparently not. When an answer is given, it often turns out later not to have been authoritative. A member of the family or an office representative claims -- or is accused of -- having pledged someone from ignorance of his true agenda.
But even if the decision maker is the actual person invited, the chance of things being reversed or forgotten seems to be enormous. Supposedly organized people are forever professing ignorance and surprise that they have failed to meet the regular obligations of society.
"I forgot -- I have to be out of town that night," they say. Or "We're going to something else, too, but we'll try to stop by." Or "If I don't need to work, I'll be there." Or Miss Manners' all-time favorite: "I'm not sure I'll be in the mood then."
Worse, they simply don't show up, and offer such excuses afterward, or say they forgot, or say nothing at all.
Miss Manners has heard of the modern malady called fear of commitment, but she hadn't known it was so far gone as to prevent people from committing themselves to dinner a week from Friday, or to terrorize them into immobility when they realize they are actually expected to brunch.
No one is more aware than she of the part played in this by the general decline of manners, and the failure to obey the simplest of social conventions, no matter how much trouble one thereby causes people whom one claims as friends.
She is not unsympathetic with the universal problem of lack of time to perform professional and domestic duties, let alone social ones. But business schedules seem to work, and people who are too busy to socialize need only decline invitations promptly.
Miss Manners suspects there may be a more superficial cause as well. Nobody is really keeping the social records, as married ladies used to do for their families. So nobody feels responsible to the extent of considering social pledges binding.
Once upon a time, the lady of the house could answer invitations because she knew when everyone was free; and she kept track of when they needed to reciprocate, when there were occasions that required buying presents, and when letters of congratulations, sympathy or thanks should be sent. That was a lot of work, especially as she did a great deal more of it than she delegated.
The lady is no longer likely to be in the house now, and Miss Manners does not contest the wrongness of assigning this task by gender alone. She has never cared whether the bride or the bridegroom or both wrote the thank-you letters, as long as the letters were written. The work can be divided, but someone has to know when to issue instructions: "Tell them no -- we're away that week." "Don't forget to pick up something for Cousin Annabelle's wedding." "Find a free Saturday; we owe everybody." But the every-person-for-himself method of social record-keeping isn't working. Without ultimate responsibility, people are not taking seriously the matter of treating friends properly. No matter how many inserts they buy for their notebook-agendas, they are not doing the job.
It will only work when the individual assumes responsibility for coordinating all aspects of his schedule, and stops trying to claim that his social life is hidden from him because it fell between the cracks of home and office, or husband's schedule and wife's.
A secretary should not have to deal with true social engagements any more than with having to buy family presents, or other nonprofessional tasks that have been recognized as inappropriate. He or she may keep the office schedule, including the oxymoronic business entertaining, but it should be with the understanding that the subject of it must make it fit with his private schedule.
That is best kept by one member of a couple, but only provided that the other has learned to say, "We'd love to, but let me check with Clint and call you back," and does so. And that Clint has the authority to say firmly, after checking the family social records: "Last week, you told me to accept going beagling with the Pickerings on Saturday. So you'll have to tell the Smiths no. And while you're at it, congratulate her on making partner, unless you've already written the letter I asked you to last week."
Suppose you are fortunate enough to interact socially with a world-renowned moral theologian. His brilliant conversation and ideas delight and inspire you. He invites you to visit him in his home town.
Entranced with the thought of a few more hours in the elevating company of this man, you take up his invitation. You are having dinner with him at the finest restaurant in town, whither he has driven you in his air-conditioned Rolls-Royce (his chauffeur and cook both had the day off).
The attitudes of passers-by and waiters have made it clear that he is the first citizen of the town. During the meal, he asks your opinion as a professional historian (which, by the way, you are) on whether future generations are more likely to view him as an Erasmus or a Luther.
Is there a correct response?
"Indubitably. And your taste in wine is superb."
Would you please inform my girlfriend when it is appropriate to chew gum and when it is not appropriate?
Gum may be chewed in the presence of others only when it is safe to assume that they will not be offended. It is only safe to assume that others will not be offended if they are chewing gum also. It is safe for your girlfriend to assume that gum-chewing offends you.
A couple of weeks ago, another girl I've become friends with at our place of employment invited me to a little Saturday evening get-together with the girl she shares an apartment with and some of their college friends.
Most of the men relaxed by removing their shoes and propping their feet on the coffee table and other furniture.
To put things as delicately as possible, there was noticeable foot odor. After five or 10 minutes, I got up, quietly made my excuses and left. Ever since, my friend has been very cool at work, speaking only when absolutely necessary. I would like to salvage the friendship, but can't bring myself to discuss what offended me as a guest in her home.
Good. You are not going to salvage the friendship by telling your former hostess that her friends are appalling and their feet smell. That also insults the hostess, by questioning her standards and choice of friends.
Your abrupt departure, whatever excuses you made, obviously gave that (accurate) impression. It is therefore your job now to strengthen those excuses ("I'm so sorry I was obliged to leave suddenly -- I'm sure I missed a wonderful party") rather than to replace them with the insulting truth.