A proud shipping line advertises the magical luxury of its cruises with a photograph of a white ship in a turquoise sea. Beside that is a smaller picture, in which a fine china cup and saucer and some delicate cookies evoke the leisurely pleasures of teatime.
But there is also a gilded spoon shown sticking awkwardly up out of the cup itself, rather than in its proper parking place on the saucer. Miss Manners had thought everyone knew that warts will grow on any hand that leaves a spoon in a cup, even for a second.
In another advertisement, the makers of high-quality writing paper evoke the intimacy of letter-writing by picturing a bundle of aged letters lovingly tied with ribbon. One would imagine the lady to whom they are addressed rereading them, misty-eyed, after decades of blissful marriage to the gentleman who courted her by writing them. Modern lovers might be led to reflect that no one could ever similarly treasure While You Were Out notes or faxed messages.
But the envelope shows that the lady has been curtly addressed by her name alone, naked of any courtesy title. An insult in the era being suggested, this is common practice now, although still considered -- well, common. It is a graceless compromise, born of rough experience with the anger of ladies who are addressed as Miss when they prefer Ms., or vice versa, a hazard that telephone messages can neatly avoid.
Oh, picky, picky, picky. Who even knows these details nowadays besides fussy old Miss Manners? Who else cares?
Above all, who cares if advertisements are socially correct or not?
Actually, Miss Manners knows about these errors because she received clippings in the mail from aggrieved Gentle Readers, with little tsk-tsking notes about how ignorant such pretentious companies really are of the luxuries they handle. She has also received countless examples of silver, china or crystal advertisements, with letters pointing out that the items are placed incorrectly on the table.
But it is not always high-priced dry goods that offend. Gentle Readers report being offended by television advertising, particularly that which sells food, when the ordinary decencies, such as saying "please," chewing with the mouth closed, and not taking up a large percentage of the table space with one's upper body, are ignored.
Surely some of the fussbudgets who complain had been targeted as customers. And Miss Manners has noticed that people who couldn't -- or wouldn't bother to -- single out such technical etiquette errors nevertheless know that something seems wrong, and are left with vaguely unpleasant associations:
If you go on a cruise, are your fellow passengers going to be slobs? If you order writing paper and write more letters, are you going to be on the giving and receiving end of petty conflicts? If you try to cook and eat nicely, are you going to be disgusted at your own dinner table?
Not caring whether any of these goods are actually sold, Miss Manners is inclined to let advertisers sink in their own ignorance. She has argued, and will continue to, that it is foolish to look to commercial enterprises for one's etiquette guidance.
Nevertheless, people often do -- or at least they claim that they have a hard time teaching manners to children who produce popular counter-examples. And in the realms of etiquette that are not in their daily experience, they rely on salespeople to guide them to the correct.
There is an opportunity there for businesses to learn and to set an example. If they don't want to do it for high-minded reasons, such as helping Miss Manners with her job, they might reflect that it would help them help themselves.
Q. I'm a young male in favor of a reputable social life. Where I live, drinking is a big ingredient in nighttime social amusement.
Recently I decided to test myself by abstaining from alcohol for some time. My friends and I still go out and have fun, but often I've run into confusion and odd responses from bartenders and other "sociolites."
What do you drink if you're not drinking?
What beverages should you order in nightspots, clubs and formal dining situations? More important, how should I relate these sensible feelings to my friends without declaring the insensitive "I'm on the wagon"?
A. When ordering a drink, either for oneself or through a host, it is customary to say what one wants, not what one doesn't want, nor why one doesn't want it.
Sociolites (Miss Manners adores the term -- she knows exactly the sort of gregarious busybody you mean) should be discouraged, by a simple repetition of the order, from investigating the matter:
"I'll have a tomato juice, please." (The nonalcoholic drinks most readily available at bars are cocktail mixers: tonic water, club soda, juice.)
"What's the matter? Why aren't you drinking?"
"I am. I'd like a tomato juice, please."
"No, I mean why aren't you having a real drink?"
"I'd like a real tomato juice, please."
And so on, until you drive them to their own drinks and some other topic.