Why should you have to dress up for New Year's Eve? It's not all that special an occasion, is it?

A lady of Miss Manners' acquaintance once reported hearing a similar argument from her fiance', whom she was trying to persuade to wear a tie.

"It's not that formal an occasion, is it?" he pleaded.

"Our wedding?" she replied.

Miss Manners is in favor of strewing life with special occasions for which everyone concerned agrees that it is worth making an effort. Life is rather a drab affair if there is no sense of solemnity or festivity to relieve the ordinary routine -- when "It's no big deal" describes every hand.

This is not to say that Miss Manners wants rent or tuition money to be diverted into a glove fund, or that she tries to prod people of simple tastes into making a display of themselves. Formality is a relative concept, and she includes the effort of combing the hair and washing up for family dinner, so that there is something special about that daily event, as well as energies invested in more elaborate rites and traditions.

The attitude she finds disturbing is not that of genuine indifference to stylistic symbolism -- people who feel that way naturally go along with the requirements for other people's special occasions, without foaming at the mouth and claiming their civil liberties have been violated if they are expected to wear skirts or ties -- but the attempt to sabotage formality.

Miss Manners believes this to be motivated by a Fear of Formality that oddly afflicts people who generally participate eagerly in the consumer crazes of the society. It takes two apparently opposite forms.

The first is the fear that such dignity is pretentious, bespeaks a totalitarian attitude and is appropriate only to age groups that supposedly personify these positions.

This produces the ludicrous spectacle of adults trying to dissociate themselves from the suspicion of being grown-up, and, over their expensive wines and audio-visual entertainment, denouncing the trappings of formality as materialism. It sometimes has them congratulating themselves on their humanistic values in the act of snubbing others by refusing to participate appropriately in events those people deem important.

The second form is actually an enthusiastic acceptance of the frivolities associated with formality, among those who, with hilarious exaggeration, don long black gloves and sequined stockings, or plaid dinner jackets and top hats, to parody conventionality. Unfortunately, Miss Manners is neither grateful for nor amused by this tiresome joke.

She suspects both reactions are based on the fear that following convention in good faith might subject one to ridicule, either for getting the details wrong or for harboring sentimental or serious emotions about the milestones of life. And thus it is safer either to refuse to play or to make it obvious that one is only playing.

Miss Manners would like to reassure anyone who is afraid of seeming to aim for conventional formality and getting it not quite right. It's not all that hard, and, anyway, polite people make it a point not to notice unintentional infractions. We understand that the traditions were unnaturally broken in the 1960s; but once a generation takes the trouble to get them right, they will again pass as automatically to future generations as language does.

And for those who believe that only stuffy and mean-hearted people believe there are occasions in life to be treated with dignified formality, she has a dreadful secret: Yours has become the entrenched and banal position now. Your children find you funny and old-fashioned in your rigid informality.

In my second marriage (my first husband died), neither my husband nor his sons can understand my objection to being referred to in the third person while I'm present.

I cannot explain to them what is incorrect, other than by telling them how I feel about it. Is there an etiquette rule related to this issue?

Perhaps you and Miss Manners should band together to form the Third Person Club. We could learn to play the zither.

The only such etiquette rule is that servants were once expected to use the humble form of not quite daring to address their employers directly: "Madam's bath is ready"; "What would the gentleman like in his tea?"

Miss Manners rather doubts that this is what your husband and children have in mind, and no other pretense of someone's not being present or capable of speaking for herself is polite. Children, old people and the disabled are often treated to this indignity.

There is a more general rule of etiquette applicable here that ought to be more often invoked in families: Stop doing things that annoy Mama.

Twice during the past weekend, when I was in the company of close friends and family, the person seated to my left at the dinner table used his or her own fork to sample food from my plate. This seems to be a common occurrence in restaurants these days; everyone wants to taste everyone else's dinner.

On the first occasion, a friend who had already eaten from his own fork used it to reach for a piece of squid from my plate. He decided that the first piece he chose was too big, and so searched for a smaller one.

In the second case, my own sister took the wafer from my ice cream, dipped it into the ice cream, took a bite and replaced the wafer in my dish.

I find this behavior most objectionable but don't know how to handle it without hurt feelings. I generally say nothing but am unhappy with the situation.

I am sure I am not alone in this. Eating from a common bowl has long been the norm in many cultures. However, I would be forever grateful if you could suggest a delicate way of putting an end to it in my own social circle.

Unfortunately, Miss Manners does not allow you to lean forward, elbows on the table and forearms encircling the plate, to protect your dinner from scavengers.

You are going to have to be on the alert, therefore. At the first gleam in a neighboring eye, say, "Let me give you a taste of this," and put some on your bread-and-butter plate.

As for surprise attacks, you may be able to discourage them in the future by surrendering what you have at the time. Pass the entire plate to the attacker and say politely, "Oh, that's all right -- you finish it." You may have to get yourself dinner later, but it will establish the idea that you don't like unauthorized sharing.