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NEW TREND: NICE GIRLS (AND BOYS) SAY `NO'

A new trend among the young is (or so Miss Manners reads in the sort of publications where such things are announced) virginity. No longer an old-fashioned concept, she is assured, it is now, in a unisex version, the latest thing.

Miss Manners is so old-fashioned that she remembers way, way back, to when crucial decisions about one's personal life depended on something with more ballast than a trend. Not to mention all the way back to when such decisions were considered morally crucial.But never mind. There is not so much moral struggling going on nowadays, that one can afford to scorn the kind that tries to court acceptance under the more compelling name of fashion.

Not that Miss Manners is trying to pass herself off as Miss Morals. A basic rule of etiquette requires polite people to mind their own business, and thus prevents them from evaluating what ought to be the private lives of individuals. And having noticed that the real political division of modern society is between those who want to have a say in other people's nonviolent sex lives and those who don't, Miss Manners has to put herself in the second category.

Just don't scare the horses in the streets, is all she asks.

But a revival of abstinence would require reviving the manners to go with it, and this is certainly her business.

Some of these manners are entertaining, and people should be delighted to relearn them. Others are difficult, but learning them will be essential to participating in this new trend.

Miss Manners prefers to do the difficult part first. Lest that sound as if she is sneaking into the morals business (where this type of scheduling is preferred to its opposite), she hastens to point out that it is moralists who need to come into the etiquette business.

Those who have studied the behavior of teenagers have finally begun to discover that lots of them say yes not from lust, but from something even stronger - the desire not to be impolite. They don't know how to say no without hurting the would-be seducer's feelings, destroying friendships or risking ridicule.

That is an etiquette problem.

Personally, Miss Manners cannot understand why anyone would pass up an opportunity to say, "I'm not that kind of a girl." Or, she supposes, boy. Either way, it's the kind of ringing statement that anyone should be glad to deliver. (On the other hand, "I'm saving myself for my husband, or wife," is not quite nice - as if one were a commodity that might get used up.)

But she understands that something else is needed, for those whose dramatic or comedic talents are not fully developed.

"I'd rather just be friends" is already taken, being the modern euphemism for "I find you hopelessly unattractive." And saying that one is, and intends to remain, a virgin, is vulgar, not only because it draws attention to one's private parts, but because it sounds dangerously like brag-ging.

Miss Manners recommends the more subtle and flattering, "If it were anyone, it would be you," unaccompanied by an explanation of why it won't be anyone.

Not having to discuss one's innermost feelings is surely one of the rewards of chastity. Coupled (so to speak) with another of virtue's advantages - the freedom to flirt - such mysteriousness can be an enormous attraction.

In a promiscuous society, even ordinary flirtation - the aimless but delicious pastime of batting eyes and trading outrageous quips, when one has no intention of carrying things further - is a forbidden luxury. It confuses and angers people who are trying to get bedded down for the night, so those who are not interested are supposed to make their unavailability clear. No wonder dinner parties are dying out.

Serious flirtation - trying out a variety of romantic partners - is considered even more seriously wicked in such a society. When dating involves intimacies, the person who sees more than one person at a time, or in frequent succession, is deplorably faithless.

But people who really go out when they go out, rather than staying in, are respectably allowed to see as many people as they want. Children, go ask your strait-laced grandparents how much fun it was to have a date with a different person every weekday night.

The lack of implied obligations in unconsummated romances meant that infidelity could not be charged against anyone who wasn't actually married. They were all free. And the resulting competition did wonders for the quality of courtship.

Besides, single people didn't have to spend all their time doing research on those who attracted their interest. One question will do - "Is he (or she) married?" - in place of a whole list of them: "Is she living with anyone?" "Is he seeing anyone?" "Is she dating anyone?" Not to mention the ones optimistically intended to elicit an honest medical history.

That alone ought to be worth the sacrifice.

Dear Miss Manners: My wife and her family pride themselves on not being "morning people," and believe it is not their obligation to be civil, let alone cheerful, before, say, 10 a.m.

I came from a large family where we were sent back to bed (or at least threatened with this) when we got up "on the wrong side of the bed." I do not bubble or go chirping around in the morning, but I expect a nod or smile when I say, "Good morning." Instead, I'm ignored, or get a snarl. My brother-in-law's wife reads a novel at the breakfast table, saying he's like a bear with a sore foot.

Life is tough enough as is, and I believe there is no excuse for not acting like a civilized person always, and trying to be pleasant at all times.

Gentle Reader: Come back later, if you don't want to be smacked. Miss Manners is feeling surly.

No, not really. Miss Manners is a veritable fountain of goodwill at all hours, and if she isn't, she fakes it. That, as you so rightly say, is the essence of civilization. And of manners.

The antithesis of civilization is to take pride in one's inability to be pleasant. Sore bears belong in their caves. Anyone who emerges has to be able to pronounce the words "Good morning" with a reasonable imitation of cheerfulness.

Your relatives ought to be able to master this short skill. Afterwards, you might point out to them the props of morning - newspapers to conceal the face, and a beverage to occupy the mouth - protect them from the greeting's being taken as an invitation to morning conversation.

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper. The quill shortage prevents Miss Manners from answering questions except through this column.