"Causing a scene" is an etiquette felony.
The injunction against raising a ruckus in public was once so well understood that polite people had a hard time overcoming their proper inhibitions in cases of emergency. They had to reassure themselves that it was quite all right, under the right circumstances, to yell "Fire!" or "Help!" or "Watch out, there's a piano about to fall on your head!"
No longer. If you can't get on reality television, at least you can make a public scene.
What has long driven Miss Manners even wilder than she naturally is is that many of the louts who make unnecessary scenes claim to be acting in the name of etiquette. Often they report to her how they detected a transgression and humiliated the transgressor with a whopping transgression of their own. Then they wait for Miss Manners to applaud.
And now we are seeing Act 2. Victims of rudeness who do not retaliate in kind (meaning rudeness, not kindness) feel the shame of a duty neglected, and expect Miss Manners to coach them back into the fray.
"I was sitting at a bar, minding my own business and enjoying a refreshing boisson," writes a Gentle Reader, "when a man sat down next to me, lit a cigarette, and began to blow smoke in my face and all over the rest of me.
"My first instinct was to move to another seat at the bar, where there were no smokers. However, the etiquette of this move was unclear to me. Should I just stand up and walk to a different seat with my drink, or should I excuse myself and then move, or should I tell him that I am moving because I don't like being poisoned by strangers in public places?"
A lady who was bawled out in the grocery store for leaving her cart in the middle of the aisle while she went to find plastic bags for her vegetables ruefully admitted that she had simply fled, not knowing what to say. "She was one of those loud-mouthed types, and I should have told her off when I had the chance."
"I'm trying to teach my kid good sportsmanship, and one of the fathers at his school boos visiting teams at the soccer games," a gentleman writes. "So I'm thinking of organizing the other fathers to boo him the next time he hogs the microphone at the parents' meeting."
"It was a perfect summer day, Red Sox in town, life couldn't be better," writes another Gentle Reader. "Except that the woman directly behind us never stopped talking for nine innings. She was some sort of baseball writer and let everyone for two rows know how important and connected to the players she is and how much she knows about the game. She never drew a breath until I thought I was going to go insane. Is that just part of life in being in a public area? Is there a polite way to ask someone to please shut up, if even for just a minute? Should we have moved and told her why?"
Miss Manners regrets having to say that yes, encountering rude people is a part of life in public areas. So are brawls in bars, shouting matches in grocery stores, derisive disruptions at meetings and fights in the bleachers.
But one can walk away rather than enter the fray. Because scenes often lead to violence, those who don't fight back seem oddly to fear the charge of cowardice. But they should not fear the even more bizarre charge of having taken up the very rudeness they deplore.
Dear Miss Manners:
I was called for jury duty recently. I realized, after I had been questioned by the judge with the usual suitability-for-jury-service questions, that I was the only one of the group that had answered "Yes/No, sir," or "Yes/No, Your Honor" to his questions. No one else questioned before or after me used any sort of honorifics with the judge or the lawyers who were doing the questioning.
I was left wondering if my use of honorifics in this situation was possibly perceived as out of place or antiquated? I also reflexively address other people in positions of authority, such as police officers, as "sir" or "ma'am." Am I being excessively formal for today's societal norms?
A courtroom is not an informal venue, as you would find out if trouble, rather than civic duty, had brought you there. Judges have far stricter means of enforcing etiquette than poor Miss Manners, who can only plead and scold.
So while a judge is unlikely to overlook the omission of the polite form you used, showing respect for his authority is a really good idea.
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