"Shut up" is one of the few devastatingly rude expressions one can utter without using intrinsically rude words. Miss Manners does not mention that as a challenge. You may be able to think of others, and you are certainly able to think of ways to augment that expression with nasty words.
But although it would be respectable to speak of shutting up a house for the winter or shutting up the rabbits in their pen, there is a ban in all decent households against telling people to shut up. So -- how do you get them to, ah, shut up? (It is not quite so rude an expression when used to discuss the matter out of the hearing of the offender.)
This is a major issue to Miss Manners's Gentle Readers, who feel they are being assaulted everywhere by other people's conversations and eating noises. In libraries, at the movies, on public transportation and at lectures -- chatting and chomping, chatting and chomping. When a child or a cellular telephone is involved, the irritation is significantly increased. Sometimes the mere sight of one of these is enough to cause anticipatory annoyance.
Things are in such a noisily bad state that people are being driven to psychological and sociological analysis. Annoying others "gives them a feeling of control," it will be contended. Or "it's a way of showing off," or "people do that to demonstrate that they are important."
Or maybe they're just yapping.
Etiquette bans the obvious response not only because "Oh, shut up, will you?" is rude but also because it is ineffective. The traditional response is not silence. It is "Who's going to make me?"
That, Miss Manners supposes, is the question she must address. The polite attempt to shut people up must begin with the assumption that they did not intend to offend and will be upset and contrite to find out they have done so. (Already you hate it. Please bear with Miss Manners.) It is therefore necessary to break it to them gently.
In a situation where any noise is disturbing, such as a theater, one refrains from adding to it and can only give the noisemakers a regretful look. The brow is furrowed, the mouth turned downward, but the eyes flash sympathy.
It is the sort of look you give a child who has popped his balloon, and if there were an accompanying sound, it would be "Awwww." If the targets look puzzled, a finger may be laid across the complainer's lips, provided the rest of the look is maintained.
When speaking is permitted, complaints about excessive noise should start with "I'm so sorry, but I'm afraid that . . ." That your voice is carrying. That people are trying to read. That I have a dreadful headache. That you probably don't realize that you are humming. That your children's voices carry. That this is a quiet zone.
Then, if they do shut up, you must thank them. Yes, Miss Manners is afraid you must. If they don't shut up, you turn the problem over to whomever is in charge of the venue: the manager, the librarian, your mother.
Miss Manners does not claim that the polite methods are foolproof. But they tend to work better than the rude ones, because they provide offenders with a face-saving way to shut up. And when these methods fail, they at least do not add to the noise with a fight, thus inspiring third parties to tell you all to shut up.
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