DEAR MISS MANNERS: My niece is suddenly taking an interest in our family genealogy, but I wish she wouldn’t. She is 20, doing well in college, and never seemed to have self-esteem issues.
A few generations ago, we descended from a prominent French family who are still leaders in business and government. The relation who emigrated to the United States made a new life, shortened his name and did not emphasize his ancestry. We, including my niece’s parents and grandparents, are self-made people who never inflated our own importance — we don’t even know any specifics predating the immigration, so we have no details to give her.
This niece has decided to visit France and look up her “cousins.” I’ve tried to dissuade her. She is sure to be hurt and disappointed, for I can’t imagine a French diplomat giving more than a perfunctory welcome, if that, to a foreign stranger who arrives out of the blue and claims a connection. It’s so intrusive.
My suggestion that she research her ancestry through a library without bothering individuals is falling on deaf ears. She continues to be enthusiastic and determined. Recently, she discovered a castle with the family name and is telling friends that she is related to French “royalty.” She chooses to ignore our many blue-collar ancestors.
If she were just having fun looking up the past, I would not be concerned. I love my niece, but her intention to present herself to these distant relatives disturbs me. What would you suggest?
GENTLE READER: Waiting quietly to see how this plays out — not that you have any other choice. Miss Manners appreciates your distaste for snobbery and your family’s pride in self-achievement, but your niece is an adult and must develop her values for herself.
You have no way of knowing how these people will treat her, if, indeed, she can manage to see them. (Whatever their nationality, people who hold high government positions or are rich know how to protect themselves from strangers who claim to be long-lost relatives.) In that case, or if they just snub her, as you imagine, she may be cured of her princess fantasy.
Another possibility is that they may die laughing at her belief that having their name on a castle, which may or may not be in the family’s possession, means that they are royal.
But suppose they are welcoming? If they are, as you say, prominent in government and business, your niece will get a whole new lesson in respect for personal achievement. Aristocrats are not assured a free ride in the modern world, and she may well learn about New World values from the Old World.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: When we’re out, my husband places his cloth napkin over his plate when he is finished eating. Is this ever proper? It doesn’t bother me, but I am just curious.
GENTLE READER: Has your husband confused this situation with the custom of drawing a sheet over a dead body for decency’s sake? Miss Manners is just curious.
What dining decency requires instead is that he spare the waiter and the person who does the laundry from dealing with the mess that that must make.