When people complain about the rudeness of others (and surely you don't think they are lining up here to turn themselves in), they like to generalize. It is apparently not as satisfying to be battered by a rude individual as by a whole class of them.

Thus it is that Miss Manners has long been acquainted with two categories of rude people:

1. People Who Should Know Better.

2. People Like That (as in "What else would you expect of People Like That?")

The etiquette crimes that people in both categories commit seem to be pretty much the same. They don't know the basic decencies of how to eat, dress or talk; they don't respond, they don't thank, and so on. But the first group's behaving this way is met with shock, while the latter's doing so causes not the least surprise.

Miss Manners has heard about these two types for years, but she can't for the life of her figure out the distinction between them. The people who use the terms are not much help.

Currently they all describe those in the first category as "professionals," as in "They're professionals, so they should know better." Their second category is the same fast-moving target it has always been, "the newly rich," although requests for clarification bring out such contemporary subcategories as "baby billionaires" and "trophy wives."

So what exactly is the difference here?

That some ways of working your way up the pay scale are begrudged less than others is beside the point. What that has to do with acquiring manners is less obvious.

Perhaps you also remember a phantom category, no longer polite to mention, that went by such names as People of Property, Well-Bred, Used to Good Things, Our Sort, We Know the Family and, of course, Old Money (which Miss Manners thinks of as New Money: The Sequel). The idea there was that people who grew up with money acquired manners as a byproduct.

That neither truth nor logic accompanies this proposition has not discouraged people from believing in it. Not all people, of course--only the people who qualify, and a few of their distant admirers.

The problem is not only that one cannot inherit manners, and therefore every individual starts with a clean (if rude) slate, but that Old, New and No Money learn their manners from the same people. In the case of No Money, it's their own parents, usually their mothers. In the case of the moneyed, it's the same mothers who, being short on money, take on the job of civilizing the children of the rich.

The rich make an argument that they have the edge because they are exposed to a greater variety of manners, including formal ones and foreign ones, and they have a tradition of noblesse oblige. The non-rich make an argument that they have the edge because they are left more exposed to the human elements and have the burden of empathy because they know how it feels to be mistreated.

In theory, the newly rich should have all the benefits of the latter as well as the opportunity to develop the former.

In fact, Miss Manners has found politeness and rudeness to be unpredictably scattered among all these groups, the way intelligence is. And there is far too little to go around. It would help if they stopped calling one another names. It only goes to show her that they are all being rude.

Dear Miss Manners:

Three friends and I recently went out to dinner, and at the end of the meal we divided up the tab. One of my companions put in an extra $20 bill by mistake, but did not notice until after we'd left the restaurant. Now she's asking that my friends and I each pay $5 to help make up for the error. Should I pay? If not, how do I politely decline without angering her?

Far be it from Miss Manners to sow dissent, but why do you want to placate someone who expects her friends to pay for her mistakes?

As manners do not require submitting to extortion, Miss Manners would politely suggest that this person throw herself on the mercy of the restaurant where she mistakenly threw her money. However, this requires the lady's taking responsibility as well as some trouble, so it may well anger her.

The cost of not angering her is very clear. It's $5. For now.

(c) 1999, Judith Martin