Could you people try talking to one another?
Oops. The last thing Miss Manners ever thought she would do is encourage what was known as, in its faddish heyday, "communication."
That was the non-electronic version, when people were encouraged to face one another to divulge all their deepest thoughts and feelings. The premise was that we were naturally so virtuous and compatible that all human friction resulted from a "failure of communication" worse than the kind the power company promises to fix so long as you'll stay home and wait for a week.
It was believed that any personal conflict could be cleared up if only we turned off that artificial, if not dishonest, inhibitor, tact. There were, however, small miscalculations in this formula that began to appear when it was eagerly adopted. It turns out that not every thought or feeling we have, even about the people we love, is benign. Furthermore, there are people whom we do not love, and when they reveal their innermost souls to us we care for them even less.
Poor Miss Manners was still cleaning up the mess left by free and frank communication when along came e-mail. Now we could reveal ourselves to total strangers. We could say what we really thought of people we know, but had not meant to tell them -- until we hit the wrong button on the keyboard. We could bombard people with communication until they howled for mercy, and they did.
So let's not have more of that, please.
What prompted Miss Manners to encourage a simpler kind of communication was an innocent enough question:
"I live far away from my mother, who became a widow in 2000, and send lots of letters to her," wrote a Gentle Reader. "What is the appropriate way to address the envelope? She was married to my father for almost 44 years, so I want to respect that, but I don't know if I should address mail to her by her first name or Mrs. This has bothered me for almost two years."
Ever eager to be of help, Miss Manners was about to reply that a lady's name does not automatically change when she becomes a widow, as many erroneously suppose, but that the overriding consideration is how the lady herself wishes to be addressed.
But wait just a minute here. Why was this Gentle Reader bothered for two whole years without thinking of seeking relief with a simple "Mother, what would you prefer?"
This happens to be an issue on which there is no prevailing agreement at the moment (thus creating etiquette havoc, but that is another story). Often, questions arise among relatives or friends about matters not even under the jurisdiction of etiquette -- little habits or failings that are known to drive another person crazy but will not be given up unless they can be officially declared rude.
Miss Manners is not trying to shirk her job. She is happy to cite rules and precedents, to referee disputes and to supply polite ways to tame the obstreperous. The words "Do whatever makes you feel comfortable" have never passed her lips.
But while it is against her professional interest to say so, there do exist situations in which personal preferences may be honored. She can at least definitively state that it is rude to annoy your intimates when information about their personal preferences is easily obtainable.
Dear Miss Manners:
Four of my friends forgot my birthday. I understand that this is something that happens as one grows older and friends move, but what do I do the next time I speak to these people? Should I mention the wonderful birthday activities I enjoyed? Or should I just be direct and remind them that they didn't acknowledge my birthday? All of these ideas seem somehow passive-aggressive.
Why, so they do. One might get the impression that you intended to shame them for a phenomenon that you yourself identify as inevitable.
If you insist upon doing this, Miss Manners would prefer that you use the polite method. That is to say nothing now, and then make a big fuss over their birthdays.
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)2003, Judith Martin