"Nowadays" is a word Miss Manners has learned to dread.

No one who starts an announcement with "nowadays" ever goes on to point out how much better things are getting.

In reference to etiquette, "nowadays" never heralds changes that show more consideration of others, or even more sense, than previous customs. There actually are such miraculous adjustments in the etiquette canon (for example, business letters, which were addressed to "Dear Sir" when the presumption was that they would be opened by a female secretary, are now properly addressed to "Dear Madam or Sir") but these never seem to inspire ruminations about "nowadays."

No -- "nowadays" means either that someone is attempting to justify defiance of a rule that any fool knows is still necessary, or that the victim of such a person is acknowledging defeat about the hope of being treated with ordinary decency.

To comfort the latter and discomfort the former, Miss Manners presents the most frequently declared nowadayses (nowadaisies?), along with rulings about legitimate change and immutability. Please note that in characterizing who favors and who opposes these propositions, she is not suggesting that anyone besides her august self gets to make the decisions. That's one thing she doesn't plan to change, right there.

Claim: "Nowadays nobody has to yield a seat on a bus to anyone else -- we all work, and it's first come, first served."

In favor: Anyone who has a seat. People who think accepting such a minor courtesy is tantamount to admitting weakness, senility, declining romantic appeal or overwhelming indebtedness to the benefactor.

Opposed: Anyone who needs a seat.

Ruling: Everyone who has a seat should be alert to the opportunity to give it to someone who needs it more. (Yes, you can read the paper, but try to look up when an elderly, pregnant person with a legal-sized briefcase and three grocery bags leans over you to hang on the shoulder strap.) Any offered seat must be accepted gracefully (except that people whose stops are going by may decline gracefully on that ground).

Claim: Nowadays it is not necessary to answer invitations, especially since you won't know until that night if you feel like going.

In favor: Guests.

Opposed: Hosts.

Ruling: Of course you have to let people know ahead of time if you're attending their parties or not. And it's not just to allow them to know how much food to prepare, although that's part of it.

If you don't want to go, you shouldn't deny them the satisfaction of knowing that they can now ask someone who's more fun, having paid off their obligation by inviting you.

If you do accept, you have to go. A dinner invitation, especially, is considered almost as sacred an obligation as marriage (back when marriage used to be considered a sacred obligation).

Claim: Nowadays you can use first names for everyone.

In favor: People who enjoy thinking of themselves as being the younger generation, with their parents the reigning adults, no matter how much solid evidence there is to the contrary.

Opposed: People who enjoy remembering that when they were young, they wanted to be the reigning generation, and that now they are.

Ruling: After the age of consent, you need someone's consent to address them as intimates.

Claim: Nowadays nobody expects thank-you notes.

In favor: Those who receive presents.

Opposed: Those who give presents.

Ruling: Guess who started the flattering rumor that present givers are, or ought to be, selfless creatures who want only to give for the pleasure of giving without ever finding out if the present arrived, let alone if it was appreciated -- and why?

Very well then. Miss Manners gives them permission to assume that anyone who liked getting presents would not be able to control pouring gratitude into a letter, and that it can safely be assumed that anyone who doesn't would be grateful if the presents stopped coming.

I often observe my wife and daughter eating at the dinner table with legs crossed. Should legs be kept straight forward with both feet flat on the floor, or does it not make any difference at all?

Sir! Would you please get up from under the table. You are a husband and father, and have no business crawling around like that under the tablecloth.

This dispute threatens our marital bliss, as well as my prospects for the occasional home-cooked meal.

My wife says it is rude of me to add salt to her culinary preparations. She is, admittedly, talented with seasonings, and she feels that my doctoring up her dishes is unappreciative and excessive.

I respond that salt is a matter of individual taste; my inclination to add extra salt doesn't demean her efforts or talents. Who is right?

You are. God made table saltshakers (or, for the fastidious, salt cellars) because the amount of salt is considered to be a matter of individual taste. My husband and I are expecting twins soon, and we underwent genetic testing which, among other things, can inform parents of the gender of their new babies. We chose to know whether we were having boys, girls, or one of each, but agreed that knowing this was our privilege and that we would not tell others.

But the first question people ask is no longer "How are you feeling?" or "When are the babies due?" It is, "Do you know what they are yet?" I consider this as rude as asking whether it was a planned pregnancy or an accident.

At first I gracefully said that we were not telling the sex, but I soon had the distinct feeling that I was offending people. Therefore, I told my husband that perhaps it would be better if we just said, when asked, that no, we didn't know. He absolutely abhors this lie. Please help us with a correct response that protects our privacy, does not offend and does not lie.

Miss Manners doesn't care for your comparison of questions about gender with those of whether the pregnancy was planned. The former will come out eventually, so to speak.

This does not mean that you have to tell. The way to refuse to tell without seeming to reprove people is to do it teasingly.

Your answer as to what they are could be "Babies!" To any further questioning, just reply, "We want to surprise you."