There is at least one rule about handling salt correctly that everyone knows: Do not rub it into open wounds. Repeat, not.

Strictly speaking, this is not an etiquette rule. To rub salt into the open wound of a dinner partner would constitute a moral assault, rather than a breach of manners. A breach of manners would be inquiring how your dinner partner happened to acquire an open wound or decide to attend a dinner party with it.

The case would be different in regards to oneself, although Miss Manners hastens to add that it would still not be a matter of manners. Etiquette being a social discipline, it kindly allows you to torture yourself as you like, provided you don't scream at the dinner table or otherwise inconvenience those who are trying to eat in peace.

There are other etiquette rules concerning the use of salt, however, and naturally, passions run high about them. Did you think etiquette was a sport for sissies?

At issue now are the basic questions of whether salt should be placed on the dinner table at all, and if so, whether diners should be free to use it, and if so, when they can properly do so.

On the one side are those who believe it is a high insult to the cook to imagine that the food has not been properly salted when brought to the table. They believe salt should not be made available to such people, and the most determined of them now leave it off the table entirely.

More liberal cooks supply the temptation in the hope that no one will yield to it. Nearly everyone on the cooking side of the salt issue condemns anyone who salts food before tasting it.

The culprits' counter arguments lack comparable passion. They happen to like food saltier than most, they plead, and so they are just in the habit of putting salt on food that everyone else would undoubtedly find salted to perfection. Or they weren't paying attention. So they lose the argument.

But Miss Manners notices that they lack something more important to the question of who wins: They lack the intention to insult. Without that, they can be convicted of lacking taste, but not of the greater offense of lacking manners. The same cannot be said of people who peer into their guests' plates and take offense when none was intended.

Miss Manners rules that we leave the salt on the table (in shakers for informal occasions and cellars for formal ones) and pass on to more challenging issues.

Such as how to ban those horrid oversize pepper mills of which people make such a production.

Dear Miss Manners:

I attended a public high school graduation in a metropolitan area where the faculty, the administrators, the superintendents and the board of education wore academic attire. However, many of the above persons (including all of those onstage) chose not to wear their mortarboards.

When I was in college (granted it was years ago), I was told that if one wore academic attire, then it must be complete. I would greatly appreciate knowing if such flexibility regarding the headgear is now allowed.

Miss Manners knows these folks: They are the ones who have been pleading with her to tell the students why it is disrespectful to wear baseball caps during class. They don't know why themselves, but they know they don't like it.

The reason is that clothing is symbolic (why else are academics parading around as if they are wearing the cloth that goes over the canary cage?) and no clothing is more symbolic than headgear.

Symbolism does not have to be consistent to be effective. Wearing caps in class and failing to wear the mortarboard at a ceremony both symbolize a breezy, I'm-here-but-I'm-not-taking-this-too-seriously attitude.

1999, Judith Martin