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HOW TO BE POLITE BUT COOL

DEAR MISS MANNERS

When sitting next to a known fascist, does one have to make polite conversation?

I was eating dinner in a university cafeteria with some people who live in my dorm. One of them invited his acquaintance to eat with us - an infamous campus figure with professed fascist views. He sat down next to me.I made polite conversation so as not to insult him or my friend, or embarrass myself. My roommate, who was also at the table, thinks it was "morally reprehensible" to even acknowledge the politico's presence. When I said that ignoring him would have been rude, my roommate replied that in cases like this, politeness takes a back seat to integrity. The politico's views disgust me, but I felt that ignoring him would serve no purpose.

GENTLE READER - One does not have to choose between being polite and being political. You can meet the minimum requirements for politeness without chatting up someone of whom you disapprove as if you were charmed by him.

Miss Manners is taking you at your word that the person in question has publicly identified himself with views you find highly offensive, and can therefore be expected to know that he has acquired political enemies. At the same time, she presumes that he is not such an example of evil incarnate that civilized people would cut him rather than acknowledge his humanity.

The correct posture for such a situation is coolness. You do not ignore him, but you nod unsmilingly as a greeting, pass the salt when asked, and murmur a non-committal "Ummmm" before turning away if he tries to open a conversation.

Miss Manners is trusting you not to abuse this technique. She would prefer to have students argue their differences in a polite and restrained fashion, rather than treating one another as permanently embodying a particular view.

DEAR MISS MANNERS - A close friend of mine has been in and out of hospitals for several years, fighting cancer. I know that all her visitors have been well-meaning, but I've been amazed at what they've done.

A friend of the patient's mother, whom the patient had not seen in 10 years, stopped by and for over two hours recited the ups and downs of her life and her grown-up children's lives. The woman had traveled an hour or more, so I suppose she wanted to stay long enough to make it feel worth her while.

An old college friend, again someone who had been virtually out of her life for many years, bragged endlessly about her success, showed pictures of her children, her husband, and all the traveling she'd been doing.

Strangers dropped by to see her - "a friend of a friend." I can't imagine anyone who is sick wanting to be visited by someone they don't know. When in the uncomfortable position of being abed, I think a sick person would rather visit only with relatives or close friends. (I realize I could be wrong there.)

One such lady came and stayed when my friend's sister was there, so the sisters could not have the kind of personal chat they would have liked. Surely a stranger should check with family members first, or keep the visit short unless it seems to be going very well. Since my friend was in the hospital so long, it was a help to her and her family to be able to schedule visitors, to provide some respite for family members who didn't like her to have long periods without visitors.

Like so many of us, my friend is not very assertive and has felt like a captive audience. It's true that she could be more gracious - the visitors do have the best of intentions - but I feel she should be able to use all her energy for getting well, not putting up with thoughtless visitors.

Not all patients are alike. Some may delight in having visitors; others may prefer cards and phone calls. Some people just have a hard time putting aside their hospitality even when their energies are needed for the more urgent task of healing.

GENTLE READER - Visiting the sick is supposed to be such a great virtue that there are some people determined to do it whether the patients like it or not. Like your friend, Miss Manners sometimes just doesn't feel up to pointing out to well-meaning people how tiresome they can be.

The skill of being an interesting conversationalist under trying circumstances is a rare one. Hospital visitors who at least realize that they are not supposed to ask distressing questions, or offer amateur medical advice, or volunteer harrowing stories about their own or other people's illnesses to amuse the patient, often fall back on reciting their own news, considering it less dangerous. This does not make their doings and their children's any more interesting than under normal conversational conditions, of course.

If your friend cannot defend herself by saying, "You're so sweet to come, but forgive me - I need to rest now," her intimates should see to it that she is protected.

DEAR MISS MANNERS - What is the appropriate color and style to wear to a parent's funeral?

GENTLE READER - Black remains our color of mourning, no matter how many giddy brides try to argue with Miss Manners that it looks adorable on their bridesmaids. Families should always wear black clothes of a subdued style to a funeral.

DEAR MISS MANNERS - I am a divorced male whose fiancee is also divorced and marrying for the second time. What is the currently accepted protocol for engagement rings in second marriages? Also, must my fiancee's ring be larger than the one given by her ex-husband to his current fiancee?

GENTLE READER - The correct formula is to multiply the size of the lady's first engagement ring by the size of the one you gave your first wife, and add to it the size of the ring her former husband gave his fiancee. With any luck, you will soon reach a stalemate, with the gentlemen no longer able to afford to raise the stakes, and the ladies no longer able to lift their hands, and Miss Manners will be able to turn her attention to sensible questions.