Are social equality and independence finally being achieved?

Miss Manners has heard a lot of talk by people who imagine they personify such an ideal. And highly unsavory talk it is, too:

"No, darling, we certainly cannot split the bill fifty-fifty. You had dessert and I didn't."

"What's the difference if they're related to us? I won't have them; they bore me."

"I presume they sent us a gift because they wanted to, not because they expected to be thanked."

"I'm perfectly capable of opening that door for myself; my arm's not broken."

"Why should I make allowances for the fact that she has children? That's her choice; I didn't ask her to have children."

"I never go to funerals; it depresses me."

When Miss Manners had wispy dreams of social equality, she never envisioned its meaning every man or woman for him or herself, asking nothing and giving nothing. She rather thought that independence meant that we should all carry our full social weight, with nobody excused from the obligation to contribute to the general welfare.

There used to be a rough sort of reciprocity in automatically assigned roles. A lady was expected to offer an occasional home-cooked meal for a gentleman who took her out to dine. If things really steamed up and he lavished presents on her, she would needlepoint him a pair of slippers. (Yes, Miss Manners has heard about men whose idea of reciprocity was: "What do you mean, you don't feel 'that way' about me? Do you know how much I spent on you this evening?" But she was talking about gentlemen.)

How much better things would be, Miss Manners and many others imagined, if they were a bit more openly equalized.

Instead, they seemed to get worse. As the prescribed duties of gender, age, family, rank and position have been eroded, individual responsibility is seldom forthcoming to take their place. Too many people, Miss Manners has heard to her regret, act as if they don't owe anybody anything -- and then brood that others are not doing enough for them.

There are reports of both ladies and gentlemen who are perfectly content now to be the objects of blatantly one-sided courtships, if only they can get away with it.

Where it used to be a point of pride with the young to grow up enough to make their own way and assist others instead of always being assisted, it is often now accepted that the elders should always provide the resources -- money, hospitality and responsibility.

One hears people declare without embarrassment that they have decided to neglect or drop friends because their company is not immediately rewarding -- they are absorbed in their children, or have troubles, or are falling behind socially. Even relatives have to pass such tests.

And there are those who feel so socially desirable that they consider themselves excused from any obligations to their entertainers, including answering invitations, dressing and arriving according to instructions, expressing gratitude or reciprocating.

Miss Manners finds all this disillusioning. Having believed in the unfairness of rigidly assigned duties, she does not want to retreat and start barking out orders based on demographics.

But what she needs, then, is for everyone to volunteer to exhibit the sense of equality that makes receiving without giving intolerable, and the real independence of being able to contribute to the welfare of others.

I appreciate guest towels (either cloth or disposable paper) being provided for guests. However, I am perplexed over the lack of a suitable container being provided for disposal of a used towel. What am I supposed to do with said towel?

Miss Manners is proud of you for having this problem. Most guests treat guest towels as icons of hospitality, leaving them untouched. Perhaps they have some vague idea of being less trouble to their hosts, not realizing how much more unpleasant it is for hosts to have to imagine the alternative solution to which their guests resorted.

In any case, the answer is that powder rooms do not have hampers; used cloth towels are merely left crumpled by the sink. If there is no wastebasket, which would be unfortunate, paper towels must be left that way, too. You really wouldn't want to risk flushing them down the toilet.

At tea in a nice restaurant, I was served fresh strawberries with cream -- and the hulls still on. How should I have handled this situation?

The stems are intended to be nature's little handles, by which you can grasp strawberries to eat them by hand. However, the cream alarms Miss Manners. If you are talking about a bowlful of strawberries and cream, you do not want to fish in it with your fingers. In that case, the tops should have been removed, but you could have cut them off carefully with the side of your spoon.

1987, United Feature Syndicate Inc.