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Miss Manners has warned you Americans over and over again.

If you don't sit down and behave, she's going to turn this country around and take you right back home.No, wait. That sounds rude. And Miss Manners is not rude - never has been, never will be.

How about this? Miss Manners kindly requests that America get a grip on itself, stop prying into people's personal business (this includes the first family) and return to the civility that once went hand in hand with a democratic, classless society.

Does that sound more polite? Miss Manners is nothing if not polite. It is her stock in trade. It is her nature. It is her crusade.

For almost 20 years, newspaper columnist Judith Martin, under the nom de nag Miss Manners, has been admonishing us to practice proper etiquette. Now she's telling us why.

In her new book, "Miss Manners Rescues Civilization From Sexual Harassment, Frivolous Lawsuits, Dissing and Other Lapses in Civility" (Crown Publishers, $30), she outlines the philosophy underlying our need for universal decorum.

"This is the grown-up approach," she says. "These are the principles."

The principles turn out to be simple: It makes for a nicer world when people treat each other with respect. Polite children are more pleasant to be around. Young people who wear suits are more likely to get jobs. Considerate adults make better neighbors.

And, lawyers beware, we're all less likely to sue when we allow rules of etiquette - not the court system - to guide our lives. Making illegal what used to be considered merely impolite is a perhaps necessary but disturbing trend, Martin says.

"Asking the law to regulate what ought to be private conduct runs the risk of its trespassing on our basic rights - yet allowing individual impulses to go totally unrestrained leads to mayhem," she writes.

Martin is out to rescue America before it legislates every aspect of our lives.

The flow of incivility Miss Manners is trying to stanch began in the 1960s, she says, when freedom-from-etiquette fighters fought a guerrilla war for informality. Martin will not, however, declare rudeness rampant.

"That implies that everyone intends to be mean and nasty," she says from New York. "I don't believe that."

In fact, Miss Manners refuses to believe the worst of anyone.

Reporters who ask personal questions are not boors; they're simply reflecting society's uncertainty about how much it wants - or needs - to know about its public officials.

People who prominently display cellular phones and beepers are not flaunting self-importance but are trying to perform their jobs efficiently.

Modern technology, in fact, may seem to present new challenges for the etiquette police. But Martin argues that traditional rules apply - in new ways.

Just as one would not read a newspaper while entertaining a guest in a restaurant, neither would one conduct a conversation on a cellular phone while the guest languishes.

In the 18th century, mail service was paid for by the recipient, so the letter writer kept correspondence brief and economical. Likewise, today's considerate fax sender does not send reams of documents for which the recipient must pay in reams of fax paper.

Not to speak of the time usurped to fax the missive.

And just as we do not object to people opening their mail when convenient, neither should we be offended when acquaintances screen our calls with a telephone-answering machine.

Martin prides herself on being one of the first to discourage the use of cute answering-machine greetings - the ones that sound like John Wayne, baby's first words or your favorite sonata. The novelty seems to have worn off, and Miss Manners breathes a sigh of relief.

One rule applies to all occasions of etiquette, Martin says: Treat others as you wish to be treated. The golden rule is a moral imperative. If we wish to live together in communities, we have to curb our baser urges.

Etiquette is a set of traffic lights that allow vehicles to interact smoothly and without conflict.

The fainthearted may believe Martin is too late a Galahad to rescue an America in which the mother of the speaker of the House repeats the "b" word on national television and athletes curse officials for unfavorable calls.

Miss Manners is made of sterner stuff.

"I don't think it is too late," she says valiantly. "For one thing, I couldn't get up in the morning!"

The first step is to raise polite children - not an easy task, given the coarse natural instincts of a baby.

"It's difficult because it's counterintuitive, but it's also rewarding," Martin says, reflecting on her own two properly schooled children.

"It's given them an advantage," she says: They are pleasant to befriend and a joy in the workplace.

Nosiness must also be curbed. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the penchant for prying into private lives did not begin with Oprah Winfrey. This is another product of the '60s, Martin says, when "nosiness and bossiness were masquerading as helpfulness and friendliness."

The proper way to thwart a personal question: "It's just not something I care to discuss."

Those being interviewed by overenthusiastic reporters may also choose this response, Martin says.

Martin's book is packaged as letters from her legendary "gentle readers" and interspersed with her essays exploring the principles of etiquette. They are grouped into such pertinent topics as smoking, dress in the workplace, sexual conduct, etiquette in the courtroom, and the care and feeding of vegetarians.

Sprinkled throughout are real-life news accounts of creeping rudeness - a high school girl suing the prom date who stood her up, a driver killed by a motorist he cut off, a youth killed after failing to give a schoolmate the "high five."

Return to your roots, America, Martin pleads. A country founded on democratic principles has its foot in the etiquette door. American etiquette is egalitarian. That makes our rules superior, she says (although she's probably too polite to say that to foreigners).

In theory, she says, Americans have the best manners - they just need to use them.