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Miss Manners: Issues of rank and precedence require tolerance of error

DEAR MISS MANNERS: What is the appropriate way for a young clergyman or attorney at law to recover from the slight of being “presented” to an older tradesman, yeoman or mere gentleman, in order to avoid the appearance of waiving precedence or allowing the lower-ranked elder to be the superior in the interaction?

Or do you say that even today, age is more honorable than the professions?

GENTLE READER: Are you the young clergyman? In that case, you would doubtless have wrestled with the great moral questions. Miss Manners would be interested to hear what you have to say about the sin of pride.

Or perhaps you are an attorney and are familiar with the problem of frivolous disputes.

In any case, your use of the terms “tradesman” and “yeoman” suggests that you are a devotee of Victorian literature. You might want to take a closer look at the social order it reveals.

Gentlemen, as designated by birth, ranked themselves well above lawyers, clergymen (especially young ones, whose chief function seemed to be serving as dull but respectable husbands for unattractive rich ladies) and, for that matter, doctors. These were all seen as providing useful services, so the vicar would be asked to tea once a year, and, when illness required summoning the family doctor, or the family lawyer came by to write or read a will, a meal would be offered. But not deference.

In modern America, things are supposed to be different. It is true that we respect those in “the professions,” at least in theory. It is the same theory by which we respect our government officials, regardless of our personal opinions of them as individuals. But it also requires us to respect anyone who does honest labor.

You are correct that there is an order of precedence, and that it involves weighing age, gender, rank and relationship. It can be so complicated — how would you introduce your mayor and an admiral who also happens to be your mother? — that few people manage to get it right, or even to try.

Common mistakes include giving gender preference over rank in the workplace, or doing the reverse in social situations. And the age factor is sabotaged by old people who resent deference because they are pretending to be young.

Polite people therefore are tolerant of mistakes. And they do not inflate their own importance.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Though the question has arisen before, I am still uncertain regarding a host’s obligations with respect to hand towels in the powder room. When there are multiple guests, say at a dinner party, how many hand towels should there be?

And when one uses a hand towel that the host has provided, should one do anything with it to signify it has been used, or does its dampness speak for itself?

GENTLE READER: Such questions keep arising because of the huge number of guests who believe themselves to be unworthy of guest towels. Or who don’t wash their hands after they go to the bathroom.

But as Miss Manners hopes that a host does not delve into such misfortunes, there should be the same number of towels as guests. Should one actually use a towel, it should be left crumpled as a sign that it needs laundering — and that at least one person washed his hands.

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site,, where you can send her your questions.

2012, by Judith Martin

Distributed by Universal Uclick for UFS



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