Those disillusioned with the current practices of what may humorously be called courtship sometimes claim to yearn for the dating system of 50 years ago. Back then, Miss Manners has heard the young maintain, the two sexes (there were officially only two) treated each other with respect.
Gentlemen gallantly entertained ladies without considering what they could expect in return in the way of bodily demonstrations of affection (or failing that, enthusiasm). Ladies accepted or discouraged their attentions gracefully, without calculating the level of monetary investment at which they could afford to bestow their affections.
Even very young gentlemen sent flowers and sincere valentines, while the young ladies knitted socks and sent coy valentines. Romance progressed in an orderly fashion, from telephone calls the day after dates to the exchange of class rings and sorority and fraternity pins to marriage.
And the universality of the practice meant that no one need be lonely on a Saturday night.
The only drawback was extreme sexual repression, which pretty much limited everyone to kisses and perspiration. Anything beyond that led immediately to forced marriage, from which there was no escape, ever.
The elders of those who believe all this should be ashamed of themselves. It is not nice to take advantage of the gullibility of the young and fool them like that.
As Miss Manners recalls, the people who were caught up in this dating system disliked it so intensely that they finally managed to destroy it. But not because they were as repressed as they led their parents (and later their children) to believe.
Dating was universal in theory, but not in practice, leaving plenty of people lonely, if not ashamed, for lack of Saturday night alternatives. The presumption that a date was the only natural way in which the sexes could mix put a damper on nonromantic relationships that now provide a variety of other social activities.
Far from encouraging respect, dating fostered competition. Those seeking to break hearts were pitted against those striving to overcome inhibitions. The progression from courtship to marriage lacked a stage for the development of friendship.
But at least there was a pattern there, and everyone knew what it was. It is the chaotic situation today, where intimacy is tied to no stage and can disappear as quickly as it strikes, that is responsible for this uninformed nostalgia.
The reformers who tore down the rules of dating wanted outlets that would allow for the development of friendships, which might or might not proceed to courtship. They wanted both sexes to be able to orchestrate occasions from which a romance could develop, not to eliminate invitations and hosting. The idea was to add a stage for the growth of romance, not to do away with courtship.
So if there are any reformers thinking about improving the current social patterns, Miss Manners hopes they will figure out how to combine the orderliness of the past with the easiness and egalitarianism that is supposed to characterize the present.
And she warns them not to rely on anyone who claims to have experienced or discovered any period in history in which ladies and gentlemen always behaved themselves.
Dear Miss Manners:
Very few people seem to begin a request for directions with any polite acknowledgment of the fact that they are interrupting you and asking for a favor.
Instead of "Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to the post office?" most people now say something like "Where's the post office?"
Is there a polite way to point out their omission? If I simply respond to a demand for assistance, I suspect that I will be teaching my daughter that she needn't be polite when she "asks" for directions, which is not the lesson I want to convey.
Miss Manners is in perfect agreement that you should not lead your daughter to believe that it is all right to be rude to strangers on the street. That is why you cannot reprimand lost strangers; there is no polite way to do so.
What you can do is to comment sadly on their ignorance of manners once they are out of earshot.
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