Having been congratulated for "attempting to preserve the etiquette of a bygone era," Miss Manners was wary. This is the kind of pat on the head that precedes "Now go play quietly in the corner. The grown-ups are busy doing the real business of the world."
And here poor Miss Manners thought that a chief item on the real world's agenda was what is often referred to as restoring civility -- although it should also mean instituting civility in areas of behavior where it did not previously exist.
As with other aspects of our civilization, this involves both retaining wisdom and tradition from the past and developing and adapting rules for modern life. Like all responsible lawmakers, Miss Manners neither trashes nor freezes our heritage, but adapts it for changing conditions.
So what interested her was what followed the letter writer's little pat: that she "has set the bar unrealistically high for our present social scene." As her object is to encourage people to treat one another better, why would she want to set such an impossibly high standard?
Because it works better than setting a low standard.
With a high standard, many fail to live up to the requirements, but a goodly number of people do live up to them. And those who do not are at least aware what should be done -- as we know from their indignation when others behave toward them the way they behave toward others.
When standards are lowered, as Miss Manners gathers the gentleman would prefer her to do, it is amazing how quickly they are lived down to, as it were. Indeed, in their zealousness to keep up, or rather down, with the new standard, great numbers of people soon bypass it altogether.
To use one of the gentleman's examples, which is a common one: "Certainly no one would write a thank-you note for a dinner when a phone call or an e-mail would suffice." Actually, thank-you letters for dinners are being handwritten, even from the gentleman's very own Zip code (Miss Manners has spies everywhere). The current rule deems them necessary for serious entertainment and presents, while e-mail and telephone calls are sufficient as thanks for trivial favors.
Do many people fail to live up to this? Legions. But the number of people who thank by e-mail or telephone is vastly exceeded by the number of people who fail to thank at all.
If queried, those who use the halfway measure will argue that no one has time to write letters anymore, and those who omit thanking altogether will argue that it is so old-fashioned and that no one expects it. And if they are correct, then thanking should be changed or abolished.
Miss Manners will leave aside the question of whether there is less time available now than before our wealth of labor-saving devices were invented or whether we just choose to use it differently. It is undeniable that the acts that prompt thanks -- planning and making a dinner party, selecting and purchasing a present -- take more time than the few minutes to write a letter, and the time difference between using paper or using a computer or telephone is minuscule.
For a busy person to express proper gratitude for another busy person's kind generosity is not a requirement that will ever pass out of fashion.
Dear Miss Manners:
What kind of apology is "I'm sorry I yelled at you, but you made me really mad"?
That is a Blame the Victim apology. Other examples would be "I regret that your nose got in the way of my fist" and "I'm sorry you are offended by my calling you a liar." However much they comfort the perpetrator, Miss Manners is afraid that they do nothing to mollify the victim.
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