Anyway, the charge is unfair. Etiquette has plenty of uses for humor. It's just that amusement doesn't happen to be one of them.
Fortunately, there is nothing unseemly about having a jolly time discouraging humor. Among the jokes Miss Manners gleefully proscribes are:Anything based on the name of any person present, especially if it contains a pun.
Satirizing another person's appearance, such as asking silly questions about being tall, blond or fat.
The suggestion that there is something off-putting about someone's occupation, especially if it features mock fear of being attacked, caught, fooled or intellectually bested.
All kidding about the advantages the other person must have from being rich, young, or otherwise privileged or protected.
It is not on the tender grounds that such joshing might damage feelings that Miss Manners insists on these rules. It is on the grounds of unbearable tedium.
If you were a 6-foot heiress and police officer with the surname Rich, how many times do you think you could stand being asked how the weather was up there, whether you were born Rich, and how many people at the party you were planning to arrest?
Naturally, Miss Manners also bans jokes that are based on meanness and bigotry. As a number of people have pointed out, this leaves nothing left to laugh at. If you can't go around insulting people wholesale, they argue, life is hardly worth living.
Miss Manners will leave them to the company they deserve - the equally mean-spirited people who manage to find insult in every ordinary remark - and turn to the positive uses that etiquette has for humor.
These come under two categories: "I Was Only Kidding" and "You Must Be Kidding." Properly used, both are indispensable to ensuring a peaceful society - so of course people have found ways to use both of them improperly.
I Was Only Kidding is the social equivalent of the insanity defense - used to nullify the possibility of evil intent from dreadful words. It should be accompanied by a look of horror and a hand clapped to the mouth to convey the notion that what everybody heard was not what one was saying.
The popular sport of blaming others for one's mistakes has pre-empted this phrase for the purpose of showing that anyone who takes offense at offensiveness is at fault for not enjoying it, as one would clearly do if one had a sense of humor. It is therefore necessary for the contrite to vary the wording: "Oh, my goodness, I was trying to make a joke and it came out all wrong - please believe me that I meant nothing of the kind."
You Must Be Kidding is not, as many now seem to believe, the correct response to tragedy, as in "Your mother was run over by a bus? You must be kidding." Nor is it permissible to use the fancy wording, "Surely you jest," now that everyone has learned the 6-year-old's reply, "I never jest, and my name's not Shirley."
Now an attitude rather than a statement, You Must Be Kidding takes the position, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that an unacceptable remark must have been intended as a joke. It therefore seeks to defuse the situation by responding not with return hostilities, but with a continuation of the joke. Provided, of course, that you can discover any small topic for a joke that Miss Manners has not yet gotten around to banning.
Dear Miss Manners: I recently took my mother and sister to lunch. Though the service was OK, my sister was up six or seven times in hot pursuit of the waitress, asking for little things: extra lemon, a refill of her drink, and so forth.
My mother said that following the waitress into the kitchen was rude, that my sister's jumping up and down like a jack-in-a-box made it hard to carry on a conversation and that it was only permissible to get up and fetch the waitress if she had been unusually neglectful or if there was a medical emergency. My sister argued that what she was doing was perfectly proper.
Gentle Reader: While your sister is up, do you think she would be good enough to get Miss Manners a cup of tea? Perhaps it should have a dollop of something in it that would enable Miss Manners to face this frantic scene. Perhaps your mother would like one, too.
And would you be good enough to remind Miss Manners never to take a job working for your sister? It is extremely nerve-wracking to try to do any job, especially such a taxing one as waiting on tables, while being followed and nagged. That the waitress did not dump her tray on your sister's head seems to Miss Manners to be an example of extreme good manners.