Whose manners are they anyway -- those pesky manners that Miss Manners, and perhaps your personal busybodies, are trying so hard to make you follow?
Are they Eurocentric manners or, even more narrowly, Anglo-Saxon ones?
Are they practices developed by the rich to oppress the poor?
Are they antique customs inherited from previous generations and followed blindly, without regard to their relevance to modern life?
Are they tricky exercises that Miss Manners, with fiendish delight, has simply made up?
In any case, if you feel that they are not your manners, is there any good reason you should learn and obey them?
Were Miss Manners willing to be slightly unscrupulous in the service of a worthy cause, she would avoid that last question by meeting the earlier ones with denials. Morality can be a such a handicap when one is trying to do good.
But as strongly as she believes that the society's common manners must be practiced by every segment of that society, for everyone's own good, Miss Manners cannot pretend that our etiquette is the product solely of reason or common sense or kindness, as propagandists on her own side would have it.
If that were true, there would be no distinction in outward behavior between, for example, Chinese and Czechoslovaks, or between ancient Romans and modern Italians. Throughout time, and throughout the world, good manners would just be the way reasonable, common-sensical, kind people behave -- as compared with all those folks you probably meet regularly on the way to work.
Miss Manners asks you to consider how scary it would be to depend on finding such admirable qualities in high enough numbers to make the world livable. But first let her answer those charges about the development of modern North American manners.
There is indeed a Continental, and particularly an English, basis for many of our customs. But this heritage -- more heavily mixed with the influences of diverse and older cultures than popularly supposed -- has been twice tailored to fit our society better.
First, the Founding Fathers specifically dealt with the unfitness of aristocratic traditions, with their acknowledgment of fixed social classes, for a republic, where personal achievements rather than accidents of birth command respect. Second, we have since refined and adjusted our manners until there is such a peculiarly American style that the tide of influence has been reversed. The manners of Europe have been heavily Americanized in recent decades.
Etiquette has always been charged with snobbery, which puzzles Miss Manners because of the internal contradiction that snobbery is itself bad manners. But indeed, the practices of any group can be used to identify and exclude non-members, and the declining rich have always tried to do this to the newly rich, usually while they are also madly trying to marry them.
However, the rich have no corner on the practice of exclusionary etiquette. Any group that seeks to distinguish itself within the larger society -- say the younger generation against its parents, or one neighborhood gang against another -- will emphasize its own etiquette: its style of dress, its secret symbol of greeting, its way of treating its leaders.
But a particular etiquette is also inclusive, in the sense that it binds people together in a common tradition. For this reason, etiquette favors tradition, although it obviously must change over time to meet new beliefs and developments. There are both evolutionary and revolutionary changes, but yes, sometimes Miss Manners just issues new rules to meet new situations. Somebody has to do it.
The point is that whatever subgroup or individual customs we want to maintain or develop as a cultural luxury, we can't afford not to have standardized rules of etiquette that bind everyone equally. This is our protection against the very evil unjustly attributed to etiquette itself -- institutionalizing the arrogance of power.
A. To celebrate her 50th anniversary, a friend of mine put a notice in the local newspaper. The affair was held in a local hall on a Saturday night. She supplied food, a disc jockey and a cash bar.
She told me she received $900 from 90 people. I suppose each person paid or donated $10 for the event. Is this in good taste?
A. Why do you ask? Has the suspicion been raised in your mind that there is something questionable about turning one's wedding anniversary into a profit-making event aimed at the general public?
Perhaps you feel that the personal milestones of life should be celebrated with people whom one actually knows personally, and whom one, in fact, selects, through personal invitations, to receive hospitality.
Perhaps you feel that hospitality consists of entertaining guests at one's own expense. Perhaps you feel that any material show of warmth on the part of one's guests should be left up to their discretion.
As a matter of fact, Miss Manners feels that way too. That makes two of us against 92 of them -- the guests and the happy couple.