Anyone who could remember the heyday of the cocktail party probably doesn't.

That would have been the only person who was having a good time, in ways that we now find pitiful and didn't much care for then. As Miss Manners recalls, proper behavior for respectable people was to stand around cocktail parties telling one another how much they hated cocktail parties.

You can see why this ritual lasted for many decades, and hangs on even now in somewhat disguised forms. There is nothing to bring people together like a common grievance accompanied by refreshments. For this reason, the cocktail party has been eagerly seized upon by the commercial world, which generates goodwill by luring people who feel obligated to go there for the purpose of planning their escape.

Miss Manners is only afraid of its coming back socially. Martinis are already back, and the next thing you know it will be tiny napkins with comic roosters on them.

To sound the alarm before it is too late, Miss Manners will explain to the young what was so awful about cocktail parties:

The guest lists were not made up with any thought for charm or compatibility, but to throw in together everyone whom the hosts owed, so as to get all their social obligations over at once. Knowing this, people did not feel particularly flattered at being invited, and tended to be lax in meeting such obligations as answering the invitation, showing up, helping make the party a success and reciprocating.

There was no set form to the event, so people were left to mill around on their own, with those who were aggressive conducting brisk interviews to find out who was worth talking to, and those who were retiring being left mortifyingly isolated.

Food was available, but it could be obtained only by hunting and gathering, which has never been a secure way to be nourished. Nor is it decorous. Guests would gather around a table, mowing down everything within reach so that stragglers would have to lean over to pluck the remains from the middle, or they would be on the alert for trays being passed by waiters, whose sport it was to be gone before shells, picks and other debris could be returned to them.

Drink being the featured attraction, the quality of the cocktails was supposed to be a point of pride with the hosts. But with a huge variety of recipes and preferences, there were endless discussions and wrangling over what was good and what wasn't. Alcohol should not bear the full responsibility of having made people pass out: The arguments about how to make a martini could do this on their own before anyone tasted a drop.

A great deal of social progress has been made since the era of the cocktail party, Miss Manners has noticed. The concept of the obligation-free guest has spread to all social events, even the most structured, such as weddings, and has overtaken the hosts, who no longer feel they are responsible for providing the guests' refreshment or enjoyment. Grazing has become the normal eating style, and pickiness about cocktails has spread to pickiness about food and water.

We therefore do not need to revive the social cocktail party. If someone wants to bring back a really good social form, with those missed restrictions, those new large martini glasses need not be wasted. Used to hold floating flowers, they would make lovely decorations for dinner tables.

Dear Miss Manners:

Is it acceptable to blow your nose in a restaurant? Using a napkin? My son says it's preferable to sitting at the table sniffling. I say, get up, go to the restroom and do it right.

Do specific circumstances matter? For example, a paper napkin after too much salsa at Taco Bell? A linen napkin in the main dining room of the Queen Elizabeth II?

As opposed to the Grill Room of the QE2?

Never mind. Since you were asking so many of the wrong questions, Miss Manners thought she would ask one of her own.

The right question is: Where is your son's handkerchief?

The handkerchief is no more out of date than the dripping nose. Every civilized person is supposed to carry one, so as not to have to insult napkins, sleeves, curtains and hapless onlookers. Serious nose-blowing is done in restrooms, which also feature resources for the unprepared.

(c) 1999, Judith Martin