Q: My boyfriend the Engineer (industrial, not choo-choo) wants to know the origin of the rule that it is improper to cut more than one piece of meat at a time.
He contends that this rule is not logical or efficient. It has become a bone (raw) of contention in our relationship. I don't care about its origin -- I just care about whether he exhibits proper etiquette.
My friend also states that he read somewhere (I assume not in your column) that it is acceptable to cut a few bite-size morsels before placing the knife down. Please help, as we will be attending a formal affair within the next several months.
A: Please tell your boyfriend the Engineer that Miss Manners the Etiquetteer wishes to disabuse him of the foolish notion that rules of etiquette are intended to be either logical or efficient.
Is eating with a fork and knife more logical than with chopsticks or with the fingers? Why does he want to eat more efficiently -- does his doctor complain that he is not shoveling it in fast enough?
Your attitude, of not caring why but caring that things be done properly, is infinitely preferable. As Miss Manners keeps pointing out, etiquette is folklore, and folklore simply cannot stand that sort of cold scrutiny. We do things this way because this is the way we do things.
We cut only one mouthful of meat at a time. No doubt the origin has to do with the habit of eating with the knife (cut and shove in one gesture -- your boyfriend would have loved it) that persisted into the beginning of the 19th century. And if you care to, you may argue that heat loss in the meat is proportional to the surface area. Miss Manners would prefer to think about something else during dinner.
Q: Men and women of all ages have asked me, "Do you have a boyfriend?" and "What's your sign?" Without being snappish, but perhaps somewhat coldly, I have answered "That's none of your business" to the first, and "I don't believe in astrology" to the second. I believe I am being civil and polite, yet people get defensive and, on rare occasions, offensive.
A: Miss Manners did not need to be told that your answer was somewhat cold. There is no warm way to say, "That's none of your business" or "I find your interests foolish."
She does understand your impatience with these questions, but she must inform you that you, too, have been rude. The truly civil and polite response is to deflect the question ("Oh, dear me -- I suppose I have lots of friends" or "My sign? It's big and red and says STOP") rather than either answering it or pointing out that it should not have been asked.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.