Dear Miss Manners:
While shopping for dining room furniture, my friend and I got into a discussion as to why there are two chairs with arms and the rest without. My friend said those chairs were for the host and hostess.
I find it hard to believe that the host and hostess would want to be more comfortable than their guests. The whole idea sounds a bit selfish to me.
Obviously, there wouldn't be enough room if all the chairs had arms. It just seems very crass that the host and hostess would think they're above everyone else.
Your friend is correct that the chairs are for the host and hostess, and you are correct that this goes against our most basic idea of how to treat a guest. Now that you bring it up, Miss Manners is amazed that no one questioned this discrepancy before.
The explanation goes all the way back in the history of Western eating customs to feudalism. This was before the invention of the dining room, and dinner was served in the great hall of a castle where the lord and his high-ranking guests sat at the so-called "high table," which survives at British universities. Lower-ranking people, whether guests or retainers, sat at tables set below at right angles. Thus the hosts were quite literally above their guests. The often elaborate saltcellar was on the high table, and so the less significant people sat -- guess what? -- below the salt.
More germane to your question is the fact that the very highest-ranking people -- not everyone at the high table, but very likely the host -- sat in armchairs, while the lower-ranking ones sat on stools or benches. Today's dining room customs follow this by providing the two armchairs for the hosts and the armless ones as the equivalent of armless stools or benches.
What we did change is the ranking system, placing guests above hosts. But by now, the tradition of armchairs at the table's ends for the hosts is so ingrained that it is not likely to change. Miss Manners is a great believer in not interpreting traditions too literally.
Dear Miss Manners:
I'm a young adult and recently found out that a childhood friend of mine is pregnant. It was a bit of a shock, since we had grown up together and had at one point been very close. I was at quite a loss for words, and wasn't sure how to respond. She is not an adult yet, but I believe she intends to marry the father of the child, although I'm not certain. So therefore, it's not clear whether this is a happy occasion. I was wondering what the proper response would be.
The proper response to announcements of all births, marriages and combinations of the two are to treat them as happy occasions. Similarly, you must treat every death as a sad occasion, even if the deceased was a monster and the bereaved will inherit a fortune.
However, Miss Manners gathers that your friend has made no direct announcement of anything, so no response is yet required. Should the lady tell you that she is being pressured to have or not to have the baby, or to enter into a hateful marriage, that will be your cue to commiserate instead of congratulate.
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