As closely as they can manage without scorching their foreheads on the candle flames, two people lean toward each other over the intimacy of a tiny, linen-covered table:

"Mind if I have some of that?"

"Here, have a taste of this."

Laughter and fellowship emanate from the heartily piled table where a group of pals gathers to catch up on one another's lives:

"What did you order? Can I try some?"

"Everybody have some of this! It's really good."

Two children, perched in a corner with their lunch boxes, shyly initiate a friendship:

"What did you bring?"

"Want to trade?"

What's going on here? Is there a new ritual that the entire society has adopted without consulting Miss Manners? Do we suddenly have the custom of ratifying all social bonds by eating from other people's plates?

Miss Manners is aware that breaking bread together is one of the most ancient and universal rituals used to demonstrate goodwill. From the neighbor who brings a covered dish to welcome the newcomer, to the diplomat putting away another strange banquet, the way to indicate that you have no intention of fighting has always been to start chewing.

What makes this custom so deep that it has worldwide religious significance is the ostensibly selfless gesture of offering hospitality. Without any apparent thought or hope of recovering the expenditure of money, goods, time and effort, the moral person offers to share unstintingly. The cautious person does, too, knowing that in many religions, a mysterious stranger who shows up at the door turns out to be a god in disguise.

But all this is not quite what the new ritual is all about. This does not involve sharing one's last crumbs but offering to swap them.

Hospitality seems to have little to do with it. There is less of that than ever. People now style themselves hosts when what they are really doing is ordering in food from their friends instead of paying for carryout.

And in restaurants, where most of the trading is done, sharing ends when the bill arrives. It's "You ordered the creme brulee," and never mind whose spoon was in it.

Still, Miss Manners can see the attractions of roaming cutlery, which allows people to taste dishes that are new to them and those that should be off-limits to them, and she has no objection to the practice of sharing if certain conditions are met.

The chief one is that sharing food, like other shared pleasures, is supposed to be a pleasure to both parties. Even between husband and wife, mutual consent should be required.

Next, it should be recognized that not everyone who is willing to share food is willing to share eating utensils. With the exception of a couple's first taste of their wedding cake, food is properly offered on a small plate, either the bread and butter plate or one that has been requested for the purpose.

Tasting is defined as one or two mouthfuls; anything more is called splitting, as in "let's split an order of cheesecake."

Devouring someone else's order instead of ordering a helping of one's own isn't made more respectable by the announcement "But I'm not hungry!" or "I can't have any--I'm on a diet."

Dear Miss Manners:

A friend allows her 11-year-old daughter to bring a book to read when the family gathers at a restaurant. Obviously the parent feels this is mannerly, but we find it disrespectful and rude. Please give us your viewpoints.

Doesn't this poor child have a cell phone?

That is the current instrument of choice when one wants to show guests that they are so boring that one must ignore them and supply one's own entertainment. If the parents are under the impression that to do so with a book is any less insulting than to do so with a telephone, Miss Manners assures them that they are mistaken.

(c) 2000, Judith Martin