Would George Washington be proud of the way Americans have come to value and practice honesty?
Never mind the vast number of citizens who openly discuss cheating on their taxes. Never mind the travelers who brag about the souvenirs they pocketed from restaurants and hotels or the purchases they plan to slip by customs. Never mind the workers whose private lives, on the job and off, are conducted with the blatant use of equipment and supplies involuntarily provided by their employers.
Those are just ordinary folks with a spirited sense of fairness. Or so they tell themselves. The righteous indignation with which they are able to defend such behavior as rebellion against unjust practices, pay scales and prices makes them sound like patriots.
These may be some of the same people Miss Manners has in mind, but she is considering their sense of honesty in situations that they believe to be of more serious moral consequence. That is, when they might be expected to say something nice that is not an honest reflection of their personal feelings at the moment.
Such as "You look terrific."
Or "I'm so glad to see you."
Or "What a cute baby."
Or "Congratulations, I'm so happy for you."
Or "This was exactly what I wanted; how did you know?"
Or "This is delicious."
Or "I had a wonderful time."
Or "I hate to leave, but I promised to get home."
Or "I'd love to, but unfortunately I have another engagement then."
Or "I'm just not ready for a serious relationship."
With their sense of integrity blazing, the Honesty Squad points out that the truth, in these cases, is quite different:
It is "You're fat."
And "Not you again."
And "Scary baby you've got there. Is it normal?"
And "How come you have all the luck when I'm the one who deserves it and never have any?"
And "Why can't you just fork over the money so I can get something I want?"
And "I'm outta here."
And "There must be something better to do."
And "I'm looking for someone with looks and money, which you don't have. Failing that, I at least need someone more exciting."
Not all of these statements are actually made. There is enough residual etiquette sense in most people to warn them that there is something not quite nice -- or safe -- about insulting others to their faces.
Yet they believe it is the right thing to do. It is honest, they will argue, and it is also helpful, as it provides others with truthful feedback.
So they may say something slightly less offensive but scrupulously not nice, such as, "Well, good for you" or "I'll let you know -- I don't know what I'll feel like doing then." Or they may simply leave silence where the kind phrases ought to be.
It is doubtless unfair to blame George Washington and that dubious cherry tree tale for inspiring his countrymen to such displays of honesty. But Miss Manners notices that this story's example teaches one to confess to one's own shortcomings, not to draw attention to other people's.
Dear Miss Manners:
What is the correct response to the occasional drunken e-mail from an ex-girlfriend, with whom I am on civil -- if distant -- terms?
It is embarrassing and tedious to read of her night's sexual conquest or, even worse, her professed continuing love amid a cornucopia of typographical errors and misplaced punctuation. Is polite admonishment in order? Perhaps we need to legislate EUI (E-mailing Under the Influence) and install breathalyzers on the workstations of habitual offenders.
When someone you know is, as we delicately say, "not herself," the polite reaction is to not notice (or, in cases where it is necessary to confiscate keys or visit emergency rooms, not to remember having noticed). If Miss Manners is not mistaken, your computer has a key designed for that purpose.
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