It is time for sweet remembrance of auld acquaintance.
(We use the quaint spelling at this time of year to remind ourselves of all those high school classmates who were mangling their perfectly respectable names in the pathetic hope of making them look exotic. How much fun it is to embarrass them by using those odd spellings, now that they think nobody remembers.)
Or rather, reminiscing would be sweet if it were the sweet acquaintanceships that people remembered. Miss Manners has noticed that it tends not to work that way.
Whom do you spend more time thinking about: The person in your prom picture whose idiotic get-up you unaccountably admired at the time, but whose calls you started avoiding your freshman year in college? Or the one who laughed derisively -- and publicly -- when you proffered your heart?
Who plays a bigger part in your fantasies of settling old scores: The loyal friend who saw you through troubled times but had outgrown you by the time you might have reciprocated? Or the bully who caused you all that trouble?
Who is the person you dream of dazzling by achieving untoward success: The kindly senior employee who took the trouble to guide you? Or the rival who tried to thwart you?
Miss Manners sincerely hopes that you reserve a warm feeling for those figures from the past who were good to you. No one regrets more than she does the miserable fact that rudeness makes a more lasting impression than kindness.
But such being the case, she might as well derive from it a stern lesson in manners.
The lesson is that although the world changes, humiliating memories remain fixed. Everyone accepts the second half of this proposition, although some let old defeats continue to rankle while others remove the sting by turning them into amusing stories.
It is the first part of this lesson that people seem to have difficulty grasping.
You know that you have changed as you matured, and are likely to fancy that you changed for the better. You grew out of your shyness and into your nose size, achieved a reasonable life if not the success you hoped, and have proved socially and romantically desirable, at least to some. But you have a hard time recognizing that others are not right where you left them.
That homely, unpopular kid you found so easy to scorn may now be a beauty or a celebrity. The friend you no longer needed may have become influential. The rival you tricked may have been promoted above you -- or could even be writing a book about the business.
And you may be sure that the one thing about them all that has not changed is the memory of how badly you treated them when you thought you could get away with it.
Dear Miss Manners:
I will be attending a black-tie dinner, which I am fairly sure actually means "black tie" when it says so. I have a pair of long white kid gloves -- about four inches above the elbow -- and I was wondering if they would be too formal.
Also, I can't manage buttoning and unbuttoning them myself, and I know you are supposed to remove them when you eat. Would asking whoever is sitting next to me to unbutton one be, well, too flirty?
Flirty is hardly the word. The prospect of your dinner partner's undoing your gloves, button by button, would be so erotic as to mesmerize not just him but the entire table. Why do you think strippers are so fastidious about wearing long gloves?
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, Miss Manners can rescue you from temptation. Over-the-elbow gloves are for white-tie occasions. For black-tie ones, your gloves should go only to the elbow (or within an inch of the end of a longer sleeve). Those you can peel off yourself, provocatively or not.
Dear Miss Manners:
There is a minor point of place setting that I have been wondering about for some time. The blade of the knife faces the plate in a properly laid place setting. Why?
With an asymmetric silver pattern, the knife handle would look wrong if the blade faced the spoon, of course, but with a symmetrical pattern it would hardly be noticeable.
Minor? Pointing knives at the dinner table?
Have you not noticed that when you are busy with your food, tossing off careless remarks that someone might take amiss, everybody around you is armed?
Cardinal Richelieu certainly noticed. He is said to be responsible for the ruling that the tips of all knives brought to the table must be blunted. Ostensibly, this was to discourage diners from using their knives to pick their teeth, but there had been more than a few problem with diners picking on one another. Keeping the sharp part pointed toward yourself is the least you can do as a show of faith that no matter how provocative, boring or disgusting your fellow diners may turn out to be, you, at least, are willing to let them live until dessert.
Dear Miss Manners:
I often attend live performances at the end of which the performers acknowledge people in the audience. When someone onstage announces an audience member by name, there is usually polite applause.
What is the proper response for the audience member whose name is announced? Should he or she stand? Remain seated? Thank the performer with a nod of the head or wave of the hand? Acknowledge the other folks in the audience? Is it considered rude NOT to stand?
I have seen a great deal of reactions ranging from jumping out of chairs to arm-waving and blowing of air kisses to embarrassed smiles and nods to seat mates. How should one react politely in that situation?
In reverse of the usual consequences of uncertain behavior, the people who look embarrassed and uncertain about what to do are the ones who are the most charming. Miss Manners hates to spoil anyone's natural tendency in that direction by announcing that it is the proper thing to do.
Jumping up and waving at the audience shows far too much enthusiasm for credit. Even onstage performers are supposed to bow humbly to receive their applause. A member of the audience should turn and half-rise with a shy smile, waving only if there is a sustained and tumultuous ovation that requires that signal before it will abate.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c)2002, Judith Martin