When it comes to forgiveness, etiquette falls short of the sainthood standard. This is always a shock to those who insist on defining etiquette as "always making others feel comfortable," which is such a plausible explanation for not practicing it.
Even Miss Manners agrees that perpetual self-sacrifice is too high a standard to use in navigating the vicissitudes of life. But acknowledging that is a low excuse for eschewing the practice of etiquette, which has a higher-than-natural standard, if not a saintly one.
Etiquette does, indeed, insist that everyone be treated with respect and dignity. It bans rudeness, even on provocation, and the ban extends to using knowledge of etiquette to point out the lapses of others. It requires providing comfort for the guest, in the way of pillows and nibbles, and comfort in the way of sympathy and helpfulness for the afflicted and the bereaved. In that it requires overlooking unintentional faults, it also comforts the well-meaning who might otherwise suffer from self-inflicted embarrassment.
But it has its limits. It does not invite people who make themselves comfortable by stepping on others to make themselves more comfortable.
Thus it is that Miss Manners, who so often counsels forgiveness, occasionally admits to being fed up.
Yes, you must forgive the guest who spilled wine on your rug, even though he never should have parked the glass on the floor (especially since the wine was red). Yes, you must forgive the old friends who can't stop talking about their baby, especially if they tolerated your talking about your wedding. You should also forgive your family for any offenses, short of the criminal, and declare a statute of limitations on using these to bolster subsequent grievances.
But there are simpler cases. Here are some Miss Manners found she could polish off without a qualm:
"An old friend has written, telling me all the things she hates about my partner (whom she really doesn't know) and about my being with him, as well as a few details about myself that she finds abhorrent," reports a Gentle Reader.
"She says she hopes we can get a fresh start on our friendship. I'm flummoxed. I'm not going to ditch my partner for my friend, nor will I modify my life in the other ways she would prefer. I feel disloyal accepting these terms, but I'm not sure I want to completely write off the friendship. What help can etiquette give me?"
Another Gentle Reader reports that a friend declared her wedding present to the friend's daughter to be "quite frankly, tacky" and not in the bride's style. "I was hurt, but offered to buy something else more to the bride's liking if she would return the gift to me. Several weeks later, the bride sent a thank-you note for the gift. I thought all must be well, and forgot about it.
"Four months later, after a social gathering, my friend presented me with the offending gift, saying that her daughter did not like the gift, and did not want it. I took it back, but mentioned that I had received a thank-you note from the bride. My friend said she raised her daughter to have good manners. I now find myself avoiding my friend since I felt so hurt by this."
How to congratulate a friend on his new job worries another Gentle Reader. "He only heard about this job because I was applying for it and asked his advice. He told me not to apply because he knew the company was about to go under."
These are all firing offenses. Rather than forgiving the friends, Miss Manners recommends forgetting the friendships. She wouldn't have wanted that halo anyway; everyone would have thought it was a tiara.
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) 2004, Judith Martin