Do your wineglasses match? Does anybody care?
Miss Manners is presumed to care desperately. A slanderous presumption exists that etiquette has commercial tie-ins with the purveyors of expensive dry goods, and that pronouncements about propriety are suspiciously profitable to the silver, china, linen and crystal industries.
Indeed, the name of etiquette is often illegitimately invoked by hustlers. They have, for example, managed to convince generations of engaged couples that a marriage without 10 lavish place settings is not a valid union. Even more galling to Miss Manners is that these shysters escape the reputation for bludgeoning people into expensive purchases by encouraging them to bludgeon their friends and relations into buying these items for them.
As a result, many people have beautiful tableware that they consider too good to use -- not only for themselves, but too good for their guests. At party time, out come the paper plates, plastic forks, paper napkins and beer and soda cans. Using the trousseau items would risk breakage and require all that effort to clean up, and their friends -- who might well have been ordered to buy them this stuff in the first place -- just don't seem worth it.
Even more disheartening to Miss Manners are the pleas she receives from those who do think their guests deserve the best, but do not own such things. Yet they have been entertained by those who do, and they recognize that they have a social debt.
The solution they propose is to dispense with the guests. Surely, they reason, people who entertain in style will realize that some of their guests cannot reciprocate in kind and will overlook being overlooked.
Well, no. Their hosts were under the impression that these people accepted their invitations because they enjoyed their company, not because they wanted to dine in a better fashion than they could manage on their own. After allowing a certain leeway for inexperience, frequent hosts begin to get annoyed that no one initiates seeing them.
So those who claim that they cannot entertain because they don't have the proper tableware are not off the hook. They don't have to have "good" things; they only have to do the best they can.
Oh, wait. Miss Manners is not going to issue an endorsement like that without knowing what they consider the best they can do. Too often people plead a lack of money, with which she is sympathetic, when they are really talking about a lack of effort, with which she is less so. Paper costs more in the end than simple dinnerware.
It is possible to entertain graciously without using bone china, crystal glasses and sterling silver flatware if you don't have any or if you are including intimate friends at a family dinner. It is ungracious only to have all this stuff yet begrudge your guests the use of it.
Nor do such things have to come in matching sets, if some care is taken to see that the table doesn't look as if it is laid out for a yard sale. Which, by the way, is a good place to start looking for tableware. You may be sure that Miss Manners does not get a commission.
Dear Miss Manners:
I'm not new at the manners game, but I'm not sure on this one. I'm 5 feet 4 inches tall, and my husband is 5 feet 8 inches. When we go to social functions, I'm uncomfortable wearing my high heels and being taller than my husband. But they do make my legs look longer and more shapely than flats. Do you have a solution?
Yes: Do your husband the honor of assuming that his stature does not diminish in dignity in comparison to yours. Miss Manners only hopes that you can hold on to your own dignity in -- if she has done the arithmetic correctly -- what must be five-inch heels.
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)2005, Judith Martin