"Can't we just be friends?"

"I was just trying to be friends with her."

"No, no, he's just a friend."

Traditionally, these were ominous words. As Miss Manners and everyone else knew, there was a world of heartbreak for someone in each of these seemingly careless statements. In the romantic sweepstakes, Just Friends was the booby prize.

But lately, Just Friends has come to be used truly carelessly, to cover a variety of sentiments and situations, including opposite ones. Such sloppiness can produce not only heartbreak, which is often inevitable, but outright confusion, which is inexcusable. Miss Manners had better clarify the terminology.

Part of the difficulty is the similarity of the expression to two others: a warm but totally nonromantic bond, Good Friends (sometimes Friends or Very Good Friends), and one fraught with flaring or extinguished passion, known as Just Good Friends. Miss Manners apologizes for the fineness of the distinctions, but in etiquette, as in love, nuance is everything.

Under current social circumstances, these two categories can only be imperfectly understood. But merging them into an all-purpose Just Friends has only made things worse.

Good Friends describes a relationship between two people who have never dreamed of anything romantic and would burst into genuine laughter at the very idea. When the odd assumption prevailed that real friendship was impossible between ladies and gentlemen, it seemed obvious that ladies' friendships, or gentlemen's, easily met that requirement. (A lot of things seemed obvious then that are not quite so much so now.)

However, it was decidedly peculiar to think that a lady and a gentleman could not be Good Friends; they need only meet the qualifications of wishing to see each other happily mated, and being able to exchange sympathy and confidences without anyone's worrying that outside foolishness or enthusiasm would damage the bond.

Just Good Friends has three perfectly simple meanings, but the erosion of the concepts of discretion and privacy has made them bewildering to many people. "Oh, we're Just Good Friends" means: 1. "We are having a raging affair, but please mind your own business." 2. One of the couple wants to get married, and the other is indecisive but might come around if only everyone else would shut up about it. 3. The romance is over and there may or may not be hard feelings, but it is socially less embarrassing to pretend that there never was a romance.

Very useful categories, these. But then Just Friends began to be used not only for all of the above meanings, but also as a label to be slapped immediately on any overture that could conceivably turn out later to be romantic. The meaning then became: 1. "Go away." (One person is totally uninterested, but feels obliged to let the other hang around until the sight of the disappointed face gets too sickening.) Or 2. "Stick around." (This may or may not ripen into something.)

Miss Manners would like to restore Good Friends and Just Good Friends to their original meanings. Just Friends is then no longer necessary, because the premises on which its remaining uses are based are faulty.

The well-meaning flaws are: 1. A nice person should be able to reject people without making them feel rejected. 2. Romance is no excuse for fooling around; you must make an instant commitment, in order not to waste anyone's time.

Miss Manners is beginning to cherish the hope that for various reasons (simple propriety unfortunately not prominent among them) early and intermediate stages of courtship are now being restored. Learning someone's last name before consummating the relationship is no longer considered sheer prudery.

Barring the occasional bolt of lightning, romance has nothing else to develop from except some form of what may loosely be termed friendship. At any rate, beginning acquaintanceship takes on the forms of friendship until one person chooses to risk turning it into love.

At that point, whenever it is, the other person has to have the courage to find some way of saying either "No, this can never be" or "You're rushing me -- I don't know my own feelings yet." And the same way cannot serve for both.

I'm a woman 21 years of age and still a virgin. In this day and age, I have found this is rare.

My boyfriend is sometimes rude in telling people about his "strikes" with me, and my face turns beet red. It's not just that, but then they always come out with jokes about it.

I think it's good that I've still got my virginity, because I never have been accused of cheating, and doubt that I would be. But what should I say to people, and to my boyfriend for that matter, about their embarrassing virgin jokes?

This may come as a shock, but one of the traditional advantages of chastity was that a lady could not be safely "talked about" in the fashion you describe. Any gentleman, but particularly one who cared about her, would make short work of anyone who dared mention her name disrespectfully.

And now you tell Miss Manners that virtue is ruining your reputation, and that the chief offender is the very person who ought to have been your chief defender. The gently sad sound you hear is her profound sigh.

Do not be embarrassed to employ the manners of respectability. This includes warning the young man that anybody who discusses with others the personal relationship he has with you is not going to have any at all, and informing tasteless jokers that they may expect to be horsewhipped by him if they don't stop -- a remark that incidentally has the effect of making him sound much more masculine than he does as an unsuccessful seducer. Our friends and relatives aren't all used to some of the more detailed rules of etiquette. They have followed local practices so long that when it comes to some things, they have trouble doing what's proper.

Their ways may save a little money or a little time, but that's not really a concern for me. Must I be incorrect just because they are, and accept minor infractions, or should I continue to correct everyone? Is there a time when one shouldn't follow etiquette rules?

Certainly not. However, the first rule of etiquette is that it is insuperably rude to correct others. And the second is that local custom (if that is really what it is, and not individual defiance, for whatever reason) becomes dignified by time. You may therefore tolerate your friends' and relatives' behavior in good conscience.