In the course of perusing the etiquette books of dear colleagues who have long since passed on to Etiquette Heaven (where the luncheon forks are still different from the dinner forks, and soup cups aren't used when soup plates should be, or vice versa -- and never mind how glad you are that you may never go there), Miss Manners came across some interesting exhortations under the fetching label, "Etiquette for the Elderly Girl."

Now, now, don't get excited. Isn't there something rather appealing about the term Elderly Girl? Hasn't it a rather rollickingly independent ring to it? No?

Miss Manners supposes not. But it was nice, old-fashioned, feminist anger that inspired the term and the body of etiquette that followed.

Traditionally, society has recognized only two categories of ladies, Young Girls (meaning marriageable young ladies, who were expected to be giddy) and Married Women (including young matrons, who were allowed to be slightly frivolous; matrons, who weren't; and widows, who weren't supposed to want to).

There were naturally different manners for each; the quaint idea persisted that older people had more judgment than younger ones, so the girls needed to have an eye kept on them. (A third category, Dowagers, which meant only rich old ladies, could do what they damn well pleased.)

In this particular etiquette book, a middle-aged lady of independent means and inclinations had roundly attacked the author, announcing that she was never planning to marry but was not about to submit to the rules of chaperonage devised for tender young girls. Admitting the justice of the protest, the writer was valiantly trying to devise new rules to get unmarried grown-up ladies out of social limbo.

This job has never been completed. To this day, suspicion is attached to the unattached lady (and this now includes the married woman when she is unaccompanied by her husband) who exercises the same respectable freedom to which unattached gentlemen are acknowledged to be entitled. There are still snickers for the female on a business trip with a male colleague, or out alone in the evening, or on visiting terms with a male friend.

Miss Manners would have thought all that would have stopped long ago. When the coeducational dormitory was first invented and everyone else predicted universal collegiate debauchery, Miss Manners correctly guessed that the most conspicuous change would be the development of proximity taboos. Now that graduates of that system are out in the world as Elderly Boys and Girls, they ought to remember that opportunity is not a reliable indicator of activity.

Never mind that nature does find a way. It always did, chaperons notwithstanding. But as long as the mere presence of unattached ladies is perceived as wicked, those ladies will never be able to conduct full professional and social lives with dignity.

The etiquette onus is therefore not on the Elderly Girl to restrict her behavior to the point where nobody could possibly assume she had any opportunity for doing anything, but on the rest of society. That all ladies, as well as gentlemen, ought to be able to go anywhere free of insult was the first new rule of "Etiquette for the Elderly Girl."

Unfortunately, ladies often need more protection from crime than gentlemen do. Practical restrictions of behavior may often still be necessary. But in the realm of etiquette, ladies should not be subject to special restrictions to protect them from insult. "Being talked about" can no longer be considered the victim's violation, and it is the activities of the snickerers that etiquette must now restrict.

Regarding the letter about a Gentle Reader's college-age son's friends who say "I'm fine" when they're asked if they care for anything:

I'm exposed to younger children, including my own, whose just-as-irritating answer is often "I don't care." My response is always "I didn't ask if you cared -- I asked if you would like something."

Am I out of line in bringing this to their attention? My philosophy is that I would want my own children gently reminded of good communication skills and the need for only the nicest of manners while visiting others' homes.

Growing up without a mother did not excuse or keep me from learning good manners. My dear father gave us no choice but to use them, which, in turn, taught us many other important and necessary social skills, such as respect, patience and listening ability.

You don't expect Miss Manners to quarrel with your sentiments. However, she would like gently to point out that because of your belief in respect and patience, you want to be especially sure that you do not embarrass a visiting child by making it clear that his manners are poor.

Fortunately, you can still make your point. The shade of difference is that you should seem to be puzzled by his remark, rather than disapproving. "Don't care about what, dear? I'm offering you some juice. Would you like some or not?" I am a senior at a Catholic high school. During school lunch, I've noticed that most of the students lick their fingers when they are sticky or have food on them.

I find this totally disgusting to look at and also very annoying. I have even offered them napkins, and still they insist on licking their fingers. Am I being too picky? Is it proper and accepted to lick your fingers while eating in public or with others?

No, it is not acceptable to lick your fingers in public, but neither is it acceptable to correct your schoolmates' table manners. Miss Manners is sorry about that and offers you her congratulations on your own manners and the comfort of knowing that they will stand you in good stead when you enter a more fastidious environment.

1988, United Feature Syndicate Inc.