What is the modern definition of neighborliness, that engaging trait on which we Americans have traditionally prided ourselves?
Giving the people next door a warning to turn down the volume before reporting them to the police, or to curb their dog before you poison it?
Refraining from dumping your leaves and snow on their property, your extra trash in their cans, and your guests' cars in their parking places, while indignantly denying that you did so and/or arguing that you had a right to?
Welcoming newcomers with at least a nominal greeting before hitting them with a sales pitch?
American neighborliness was once such a renowned national characteristic that it was used effectively to counter foreign charges of etiquette failure. So what if we don't know every tiny rule, some Americans used to argue. At least we try to be friendly and helpful, which is more than a lot of you folks do who are so proud of your fine manners.
Miss Manners has never approved of etiquette-bashing and did not understand why it was assumed that one had to choose between kind and correct behavior. Contrary to popular opinion, etiquette rules are designed to ease social activity, not test for social caste.
But she concedes that when a choice must be made, kindly motivation counts a lot. Not everything (the person who kindly seeks to comfort you in your bereavement by assuring you that you will probably marry again has no excuse for inflicting such cruelty), but a lot.
And those who watch for etiquette violations as an opportunity to pounce on good people and make them feel inadequate are not members in good standing of Miss Manners' polite society. The unsolicited correction of other people's manners is itself such a monstrous etiquette violation as to trivialize whatever infraction may have inspired it.
So the argument was an impressive one -- as long as it was backed up with cheerfulness and helpfulness. But with the sidewalk snarl replacing the neighborly wave, the defense of feeling over form has become meaningless.
It is Miss Manners' mission to bring back the observance of manners and hope that the spirit, which cannot be mandated, will follow.
Modern neighborliness should still be a careful balance of respect for others' peace, privacy and property. This requires a lot of on-the-spot judgment. It is an invasion of privacy to drop in on neighbors unannounced, for example, but it is not conducive to their peace if you respect their privacy by not pointing out that someone else is dropping in unannounced through their bedroom window.
Neighbors are supposed to register their complaints with one another in a polite fashion. The standard form uses the fiction that they do not realize they are offending: "You're probably not aware how much the noise carries when you have band practice at your house -- and we go to bed early. I suppose" -- sympathetic, neighborly, I-hate-to-say-this smile -- "it even amounts to a violation of the noise ordinances. We would be very grateful if you could tone it down a bit."
And yes, you can call the police if this doesn't work. Just keep that sad, forced-to-do-it expression. Open warfare is never a good idea, unless you want to live in a war zone.
A newer problem is that society is still geared to expecting someone to be in each household during the day, and far fewer people are. It is a problem that society ought to solve -- there is no reason that repair and delivery people cannot announce their schedules in advance, for instance. School schedules could be more closely coordinated with business schedules, rather than requiring special after-school programs to make up the slack.
But in the meantime, those who are home and try to be helpful could have their neighborly generosity more amply reciprocated. A lady of Miss Manners' acquaintance who has done endless service in accepting other people's packages and children explained that she wouldn't mind being asked for such favors if they didn't always preface it with the remark, "You have nothing to do, so ..."
Did such people offer to do errands for her, near their offices or on the way home? The lady merely gave Miss Manners a look.
Well, if they don't want to be neighborly back, why don't they recognize that a one-way service must be classified as a job, and pay her for being the daytime neighborhood supervisor?
That, too, is the American way.
I work in a business office where gentlemen wear shirts and ties frequently, but not every day. The thing that disturbs me is that they do not wear undershirts. This is not true just for the younger men, but for the older ones as well. Is this freedom of choice or lack of breeding?
Aren't undershirts as much a part of a gentleman's wardrobe as the slip and camisole are for ladies?
This question does not exist as a cross-gender etiquette question: A lady cannot possibly notice what the gentlemen in her office are or are not wearing in the way of underwear. We do not want gentlemen to be allowed to speculate on what ladies have, or should have, underneath their clothes, do we?
Could you tell me the proper etiquette for inviting professional colleagues to my wedding? The catch is that my company employs 2,500 people, and I associate with many of them.
Most associations are professional only, but I would still like to have them at the wedding. I don't want to overstep any etiquette bounds, though.
Then don't invite them. Weddings are for relatives and friends. If you could see the number of letters Miss Manners receives from those who resent being asked to the weddings of business acquaintances (not to mention the grudging way this gesture is interpreted as a demand for presents), you would not consider that you would be doing them a favor. I'm unavoidably thrown into occasional business and social gatherings with a person I consider to be utterly corrupt and unprincipled. We have been in eight court battles against each other so far (I won them all), and each of us is assiduously trying to end the other's career. All this is known to everyone at these gatherings.
Do I shake hands with this man, make pleasant small talk and thus behave as an out-and-out hypocrite? Are social lies really necessary? Or do I refuse to shake hands with him or associate with him at these occasions? It seems to be a no-win situation: Be a hypocrite or be rude.
Social hypocrisy can be a wonderful thing, and Miss Manners is pleased to be able to help you without having to condemn this useful practice.
Manners often demand that you pretend to be pleased to see people you would rather not see, temporarily assuming the guise of friendship when thrown with those you would not choose as friends. Such mild hypocrisies are preferable to the frank destruction of feelings held by those people or others who mistakenly bring you together.
However, etiquette recognizes the category of "enemy" (although only among equals -- someone for whom you can routinely make life miserable, such as an employee, cannot be treated as an enemy). It does not require openly declared enemies to put on such a show. As your enmity is public, feigning friendship would be as pointless as it is distasteful, and almost as conspicuous.
Being as inconspicuous as possible is what proper enemies owe to their hosts and innocent bystanders. The particular skill you need is the ability to miss seeing your enemy, so that you need neither socialize with him nor make a scene. This is called a "cut." You should be able to look past him so that you need not greet him, and to mumble a sudden general "Excuse me," as if called away, when you would otherwise need to talk to him.
A lesser form is to bow stiffly to him without a smile or a word. And a severer form is to say, "Sir, I do not know you."
You would do well to recall the days of the duel, when hating another person, even to the point of seeking an opportunity to kill him, was never considered an excuse for dropping proper form.
1988, United Feature Syndicate Inc.