That children are not physical replicas of their parents is a fact of nature that dumbfounds many people. Apparently, they were taught that children are normally a result of cloning. Recessive genes, adoption, stepfamilies and mixed marriages are novel concepts that spin them into a frenzy of investigation.
"How come he looks nothing like you?"
"Where did the red hair come from?"
"Are you the real mother?"
"Are they by different fathers?"
If, by this method, inquiring mouths are able to find out that the child was adopted or has gay parents, it opens a whole new line of questioning.
"Where did you get her?"
"Did you use donated sperm?"
"Couldn't you have children of your own?"
"Why didn't his real parents want him?"
"How do you know what might show up in her later?"
"Did you mix your sperm?"
"Are they real siblings?"
"How much did he cost?"
Sperm is not considered a social topic, Miss Manners regrets to inform them. They seem to be unfamiliar with the only acceptable comment to make to a parent, which is, "Oh, what an adorable child!"
Speaking of whom, the child is right there while being spoken about. Thus the parent who is asked impertinent questions has a triple etiquette problem: How to stop this insulting nosiness, how to keep it from upsetting the child and how to teach the child to deal with the same problem on his own, presuming that the rude are forever among us.
Flinging back a rude retort and accusing the questioner of rudeness would sabotage all of these goals, even if doing so was not against Miss Manners's rules, which it most certainly is. The squabble would embarrass the child, teach that rudeness is permissible as long as someone else started it and fail to produce defeat. You really do not want to hear the particulars of what the child's appearance and provenance suggest to someone not inhibited by manners. Even less do you want the child to hear them.
There are reams of jokey answers possible. One could also denounce the use of "real" in regard to actual children and relationships. And there is always: "Why do you want to know?"
But Miss Manners has never thought it a good idea to continue conversations with people who have just finished demonstrating their insensitivity. Not only does it encourage them to expand on their offensive themes, but it also leaves the subject of the conversation squirming. Even a child too young to understand will register from the parent's tone that he strikes outsiders as peculiar and therefore needs to be defended.
Miss Manners prefers silence -- but the right sort of silence. You may not have known that there is a whole vocabulary of silences, but there is.
For dumb remarks and questions, such as the ones about red hair or the lack of resemblance, the silence comes with a tired smile. Only the lips move, and not to the extent that the cheeks also move. The notion to convey is that having discharged an utterance that is not worth commenting upon, the other person is now expected to say something sensible.
Nasty questions about how a child was conceived or adopted should meet another type of silence. The face should not move from a stare that demonstrates unwillingness to believe that anyone would say such a thing. It is the feet that move after the barest of excuses. To be quizzed about such personal matters is insulting, and people who do it do not deserve to be tolerated, much less answered.
The answer that is needed is for a child who then inquires what happened. That is not the time to explain the child's circumstances and the fact that the parent is happy and proud. It is the time to explain that there are a lot of nosy and rude people in the world who will use any excuse to probe others and that they do not deserve to be satisfied.
Dear Miss Manners:
I am an attorney in a small town. I often handle cases in the local probate court, which is very informal in nature (my client and I stand at the bench to present testimony).
It is custom to introduce the client and the judge (who is, after all, a politician seeking the goodwill of his or her constituency). The current judge is relatively young (just turned 50) and female. Most of my clients are older, and I obviously represent both sexes. Whom do I introduce to whom in this situation? And should that change if the gender and/or age of the judge changes?
The age of the judge is bound to change every year and, for all Miss Manners knows, the gender might, too. But a judge in a courtroom is the highest-ranking person there, no matter what. She even possesses a weapon against rudeness -- contempt of court -- that Miss Manners envies. Introduce any client to any judge, whose other characteristics are not your business.
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