"So you're the lady who caused all the trouble," said the shopkeeper, looking up from the midafternoon pizza she continued to chew. The counter was being used as a table, and the pile of gift-wrapping tissue as a tablecloth.
The customer's mouth dropped open, too, but without revealing any nourishment of her own.
"I?" she spluttered. "I caused the trouble? You told me my watch would be back yesterday between 5 and 7, and when I came to pick it up, you weren't here, and the man said that it wasn't ready, that it couldn't have been ready so quickly, that I should come back today. Of course I complained to your boss. I made a special trip yesterday to pick it up, and now I've had to make a second one today."
This recital served to confirm to the shopkeeper that yes, this sure was the lady who had caused all the trouble.
The incident first struck Miss Manners as another one of those incitements to rudeness, if not riot, that take place so frequently in what passes nowadays for ordinary life.
Typically, one person drives another to distraction and then condemns the resulting behavior as rudeness -- which, indeed, it often is.
Miss Manners also condemns retaliatory rudeness, although she understands the temptation. The civilized person may vigorously pursue proper avenues of complaint but does not run screaming down the road to emotional chaos.
Since there were no such results in this case, Miss Manners was moved, instead, to muse on the underlying causes of the difficulty. (Miss Manners has the happy knack of turning philosophical when there's no interesting fight going on.)
There seemed to her to be a connection between the pizza and the situation. Beginning with the surface (anchovies), she began to explore the depths (the -- no, wait; forget the pizza).
Leaving aside also the question of when the watch was promised and how long it took to be fixed, let us first deal strictly with the manners problem of the day.
Decent commercial manners require giving a customer polite and full attention, and apologizing for any inconveniences, on behalf of the establishment, whether or not theindividual representative was actually at fault. Something along the lines of "I'm terribly sorry -- there seems to have been some mistake," or "Watches are so unpredictable -- the watchmaker is terribly finicky about making sure everything is perfect before he gives them back -- I'm so sorry you had to make an extra trip," serves to defuse a great deal of frustrated anger.
The common failure to use such an easy and cheap commercial tool strikes Miss Manners as odd. It is all very well to blame ignorance of manners, but then why doesn't the employer devote three seconds to teaching them, along with the instructions about using the computerized cash register? Surely it is also a part of the job to see to it that the customers do not storm out in anger.
There is, Miss Manners supposes, a deeper problem that makes employes resistant to such instructions. And that is a perversion of the proud American concept of the dignity of labor.
In the American ideal, everyone is supposed to work; those born to wealth are not excused from proving themselves through their individual efforts. This concept was intended as a radical departure from the beliefs of aristocratic societies, in which being able to afford not to do anything useful was vastly admired.
The ideal is stronger than ever here, among what are loosely termed "professions" -- in fact, to the extent of endangering that part of civilization known as private life. It has even spread to Europe, where you know the traditional disdain for "being in trade" has had it when young royalty starts selling furniture.
But in America, that attitude is slipping among those engaged in what should be a very skilled function -- dealing with the public. People who take pride in serving the public, because it requires social acumen as well as knowledge of the business one represents, are becoming scarcer as the idea takes hold that this work is undignified.
Miss Manners sees, in the increasing habit of such people unabashedly to eat, listen to music or hold personal talks with other employes or on telephones while on the job, a resentment of the idea of waiting on people. "I am really at leisure -- not work," these actions seem to say, "and you are interrupting me." With it goes a demonstration that one has only a casual relationship with the establishment and need not display any great knowledge of it.
The corresponding notion, deliberate or not, is that the client's time is expendable, and that he ought to have the knowledge to look after all of his own wants. One sees this often, not only in such unapologetic demands as that the troublemaking lady make more than one trip, but in the increasing expectations of self service, and self-assembling and repairing of consumer goods.
It requires an unprecedented amount of time and effort to be a member of a public that no one wants to wait on. If no one is to serve anyone else, each person will have to forage for himself or herself in all the ordinary aspects of living, rather than specializing and then sharing abilities.
Miss Manners fails to see any added dignity in this stance. She knows, from the eruptions of etiquette problems such transactions cause, that nobody is really happy with it.
Is it socially correct, if one has a psychic premonition, to inform one's neighbors? Or should one keep one's premonition to oneself?
Thesame social rules apply to premonitions as to opinions: If they are unfavorable or concern matters that are none of one's business, one keeps them to oneself. If they are bland and complimentary, one may repeat them.
What is the proper way to leave a room at a hotel? Where do you put used towels, etc., and what do you do differently on the day you are leaving?
IfMiss Manners trusted the ordinary standards of hotel guests, she would point out that service is provided there, and one need not do housekeeping oneself. As the linens are changed every day, there is no need to indicate in the placement of them that one is departing.
However, she is afraid that that might be taken as license to use the towels to shine shoes, flood the bathroom and make off with the ashtrays. The rule is to leave the room as one would leave a room at home if there were a valued maid who would quit if pushed too far. I am a 16-year-old twin, but my sister and I are different. I know that sounds weird, but it's true. She is extremely sensitive and loves ballet, but I think ballet is too girlish and I love to work in my dad's garage.
My sister has been going steady for over a year with a boy she loves more than the world, and they are very serious. But recently her boyfriend made a pass at me while my sister was out of the room. I was shocked. To top it all off, he said he loves me.
As I was standing there like a zombie in disbelief, he leaned over and kissed me. Out of nowhere, my sister walked in and started crying. She doesn't believe a word I said when I told her I'm not interested in her boyfriend. Please tell me what I should do.
MissManners supposes that you don't want to pull the twin's trick of claiming that he mistook you for her? No, after 16 years, there probably isn't any version of that that either one of you would fall for. Besides, it won't help if he keeps after you.
First firmly tell him, not just your sister, that you are not interested in him. If you allow his advances now, you cannot claim he took you by surprise.
Then the tactful explanation to your sister can be that his behavior was obviously designed to annoy her, rather than to please you. However objectionable that may be, it re-establishes her as the object of his attention, which will be a comfort to her and take the focus away from you, who, after all, have done nothing to merit her annoyance.
Everyyear, my husband's brother and his wife come from England to stay with us for a few weeks. I don't mind having them, but they are messy -- leaving teacups all over, dirty dishes in the sink and crumbs everywhere. With a small apartment, it shows.
We also have a nice but fragile glass coffee table that they keep putting their feet on. The first time, I was shocked and didn't know what to say. Then we asked them not to, but they still do. My husband has several friends who come over and do the same thing. How do I tactfully tell them to keep their feet off the table and to clean up their messes?
As they come every year, and you have friends with the same habit, perhaps it is time for you to invest in a footstool. Or some floor cushions would do.
Each time feet are put on the table, jump up, cry hospitably: "Oh, you can't be comfortable like that -- the table will just crack. Let me give you this." Easy as it is to ignore a general instruction, it is nearly impossible to remain comfortably lounging while the hostess is hovering by, claiming to help.
It is less easy to ask house guests to clean up after themselves. You can tell them cheerfully where the detergent is -- provided you do so in such a way as to imply that you imagined they were too shy to ask -- and you can vacuum obtrusively all around them, but you cannot assign them chores.