New rules! A whole subdivision of etiquette that hardly used to exist!
You would think Miss Manners would be ecstatic.In an age inexplicably devoted to raw behavior, it is not easy to come by fresh opportunities for imposing restrictions. Miss Manners is presumed to live for such moments, when she can combine the pleasure of spoiling other people's fun with a boost for the business.
But Miss Manners is not at all pleased by having to make these particular rules. It is her dismal job to sort out new forms of behavior prompted by suspicions and fears arising from the high prevalence of crime in modern society.
When people look at one another as potential criminals, manners are not foremost on their minds. Nor could Miss Manners in good conscience urge people to treat strangers with open trust.
Etiquette has always urged caution. Its insistence on the proper introduction has long been regarded as a laughable nuisance by those who discovered that it got in the way of what we shall politely term their love lives.
But introductions were not just invented to embarrass people who hadn't memorized whether a female bishop married to a second lieutenant should be presented to a MacArthur Foundation genius of indeterminate gender, or vice versa. The idea behind the rule is that one should know the reputation of anyone whom one accepts as a friend.
That is why the hug-everybody movements never met the standards of etiquette, the penchant for stand-offishness that has given etiquette a bad reputation. But given the choice between being thought prissy or available to being felt up by strangers, etiquette decided it could live with prissiness.
The sensible need to distinguish between friends and strangers does not, however, absolve people of the obligation to be polite to strangers. It seems to Miss Manners that fear of crime is increasingly being used to excuse omitting such basic courtesies as giving directions and other forms of assistance in harmless situations.
The courtesy of making sure that every lady is offered a protective escort after dark is back into effect. And the requirement for not unduly scaring people includes keeping a formal distance between oneself and, for example, the person ahead who is using a banking machine.
The problem Miss Manners finds most heartbreaking comes from people who believe that they are being regarded as criminals not because of anything they do, but because of race, gender or age.
A seventh-grader complains that the candy stop on the way home from school has become unpleasant because he is obviously under suspicion. "I can understand how the store might be concerned about teenagers stealing candy," he concedes, "but I have no intention of doing so. What would be a polite way to get the message across that I'm not going to grab some Snickers and run? I don't want to say something like `Get off my back!' or get upset, nor do I want to growl at them under my breath."
A father reports that mother-to-mother invitations for their daughter's play dates are "received with enthusiasm - until my wife happens to mention that Dad will be looking after the kids.
"I am as protective of children as any of these parents, and at least as aware of the prevalence of abuse in these times. I don't mind meeting parents and talking with them prior to picking up their kids for a play date. I'm already well known to the children and teachers at my daughter's school, having carved pumpkins in her classroom, given a presentation there and carpooled."
But, while trying not to take it personally, he confesses "despair that evolved, and loving fathers like myself are doomed to suffer many more such indignities in the future. And my wife and I wonder how to behave. May we communicate our dismay without being rude ourselves? Should we (gasp) confront the parent by asking what she or he is afraid of?"
Miss Manners doesn't need to tell these generous-minded people that fear, not meanness, prompts these unpleasant encounters, and ask them to refrain from being rude back. She can only hope that they will derive some satisfaction from politely addressing the concerns so crudely shown - the teenager by saying pointedly but pleasantly, "Hello, I'm one of your regular customers," and the father by making the date directly and saying, "I don't believe I've seen you around school, but our daughters are friends, and perhaps you'd like to come by with her. I'm sure you understand that we prefer to know the other parents."
What Miss Manners obviously does need to tell the fearful is that they cannot therefore dispense with the apparent presumption of innocence due to the dignity of someone who is behaving properly. She may not be able to change their assumptions, but she can point out that making them clear to those they suspect is rude.
The clerk who says "May I help you, sir?" to the young customer, or the mother who says she always likes to meet her child's friends' parents may be just as frightened and vigilant - but has decently covered it.
Dear Miss Manners: I am a graduate student with a problem with forms of address during interviews for university teaching positions.
If I shake hands with an interviewer and say, "Professor Hemingway? I'm Beryl Markham," he invariably replies, "Hello, Beryl."
This just underscores the impression that I'm a young student, rather than a professional teacher and scholar. To avoid this and the unequal position it places me in for the whole interview, should I address him as "Ernest," or introduce myself as "Ms. Markham"?
Gentle Reader: First, a personal note. Miss Manners thoroughly believes that you wrote your books yourself, Ms. Markham. (She was an English major, too.)
Now to the problem. Although Miss Manners agrees that you should be addressed with the dignity of being an adult, she hastens to add that you are already in an unequal position. Not only do professors outrank graduate students, but job seekers are petitioners, not equals, to those who can choose to hire them or not.
That might be a good reason for overlooking the professor's etiquette error. After you are hired, it would be a good time for you to inquire, "Do you prefer us to be on a first-name basis?"