That etiquette battles often have little to do with etiquette is a phenomenon with which Miss Manners is only too familiar. Why else do so many people go to pieces over the minutiae of wedding etiquette when they have never previously exhibited any interest in behaving properly?
So it did not take great insight to see that the following letter from a Gentle Reader was not about the etiquette of visiting:
"During Hurricane Katrina, I evacuated to my sister's house and stayed there for a week before I was able to find a job and get an apartment.
"Since I live near the 17th Street Canal, whose levee was breached, I was in great emotional/psychological stress about my house's fate. Consequently, I committed a few breaches in etiquette, which I never would have done under ordinary circumstances, and my sister constantly corrected me and sometimes, even got mad at me. She says I need to learn manners, and I'm 51 years old!
"I've always felt it was the host/hostess's job to make a guest feel welcome, even if it meant picking up their soft drink cans or doing things such as making their bed for them when they honestly forget. I always make my bed when I stay at others' houses. And I don't mind throwing cans away, etc. I do these things under normal circumstances when I'm at other people's houses.
"It seems to me, though, she should have given me a little more slack in the etiquette category since I was going through an almost unbearable personal crisis due to the storm, the worst in our nation's history.
"Am I wrong in my notion of what a host or hostess does? Was my sister right to correct me in her attempt to 'teach me manners'?"
The Gentle Reader is right to point out that etiquette condones cutting some slack in cases of stress, but imprecise in his understanding of how that works. He is entirely wrong about this situation being about the etiquette between houseguest and hostess.
Hostess and houseguest are essentially voluntary roles. The hostess issues an invitation because she wants the visit to occur, and the houseguest has accepted it for the same reason. So even under normal circumstances, relatives, who may propose a visit themselves, sometimes producing more of a feeling of obligation than delight, are not exactly houseguests.
In both cases, the visitor should pick up after himself and offer general help, and the hostess should resign herself to doing the undone picking-up in shared areas, although she need not enter the guest room for daily chores, such as making the bed.
Relatives ought to be able to be more flexible, making allowances for one another's particular needs and preferences, but they are notoriously bad at this. They keep over-interpreting behavior -- too much attention on either side is taken to mean that the recipient is incapable, and too little to mean selfishness and hostility. So when either asks Miss Manners what is proper, it is ammunition that is being sought, to condemn not just the other person's behavior, but also his or her motivation.
Your case is even more particular, as you were not just a houseguest, not even just a visiting relative, but, because you had lost your home, a member of your sister's household. It was only for a week, but could have gone on much longer. You were under horrendous stress, your sister was under the minor but potentially sustained stress of having her household rules violated.
The polite thing to do would have been to apologize and promise to reform as you mentioned your distracted state of mind. And the polite response to that should have been an apology for mentioning your transgressions and a statement about how grateful she was to be able to offer you refuge.
Dear Miss Manners:
What is the earliest date one can send a Christmas card without "rushing the season"?
Can you hang on for another two weeks? Miss Manners admires your efficiency, but has to warn you that cards received earlier do not provoke the desired reaction. Instead of "Oh, here's a card from the Whipples -- how nice to hear from them," it will be "For goodness' sake -- don't they realize it's not even Thanksgiving yet?"
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