The Washington Post

Miss Manners: Politely assert your right to read amid idle chatter

DEAR MISS MANNERS: My teenage daughter has a number of mild but annoying medical conditions that require regular testing and treatment. Sometimes while she is undergoing an hour-long (but not painful or distressing) test, I’ll pull out a business book and she’ll pull out a novel, and we’ll start reading.

Often as we sit there contentedly, one technician or another will come in and try to engage us in conversation, presumably in the belief that they are cheering us up.

While we’ll engage with them pleasantly enough for a few minutes or so, we then try to gently hint the conversation has ended by trailing off our answers, smiling, and picking up our books again.

Few people get the hint. Instead, they’ll decide our silence means we are a fantastic audience, and they’ll launch into some long story about their personal lives. Honestly, we’d rather read.

If I sort of smile weakly and say something like, “Well, I think I’m going to have to tear myself away from this conversation and get back to work” and lift my book again, they’ll simply turn to my daughter and ask her where she goes to school, which movie stars she likes, etc., until I’m forced to lower my book again and engage with them to give her a break.

This has happened so often that I’m beginning to wonder, am I actually being really rude in trying to read at these moments? Are these women trying to hint to me that I’m being disrespectful by not giving them my full attention? Should having some routine bodily service done, such as a routine medical test, or having my hair cut, mean that one is doomed to a long, inane conversation with whoever is doing it?

Isn’t it okay, once the pleasantries are over, to drift into one’s own thoughts or pick up some reading material?

GENTLE READER: Sure, as long as you acknowledge that the intention of the medical technician was probably not just to pass the time of day. The assumption is likely to be that your daughter is apprehensive, and that chatting will distract her.

As you know, a book — all right, or a tablet — is the best defense weapon, not just for you, but for your daughter. You, or better she, can thank them for their concern and then say briefly that this is the time she has to use to catch up on her reading.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am hosting a party for about 70 people. I will be assuming costs for drinks for a three-hour time block, 7 to 10 p.m. From 10 until midnight, guests will be provided with coffee, but if they want alcohol, they will then pick up the cost themselves. Is there a way to properly word this on the invitation?

GENTLE READER: You have already done that by noting the time that the party should end.

Miss Manners admits that it is strange, now that you point it out, that proper wording exists for “Time to go home, folks,” but not for “and we’ll be closing the bar.” But so it is. You can instruct the bartenders to say, at that point, “We’re serving coffee now.”

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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