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Gray hair represents a gray area in the realm of verbal etiquette

SHARE Gray hair represents a gray area in the realm of verbal etiquette

Dear Miss Manners: I have a male friend who insists that referring to a woman as having "gray" hair is ungracious and ungentlemanly. He would favor the term "salt and pepper," despite the fact that this woman has silvery light gray hair, not a mixture of black and white.

What would be considered a gentle way to refer to a person with graying hair? And how gentlemanly is it to correct a woman in the midst of her conversation and make her appear wrong?

Gentle Reader: You have given Miss Manners an excellent example of a backfiring euphemism.

Unlike many, she is not unalterably dedicated to saying things the plainest way possible. (Neither are those others when it comes right down to it - but they love to brag that they scorn euphemisms, right up until the time that someone uses the plainest term possible for ordinary human functions.)

But deliberately to avoid mentioning that a lady's hair is gray is to suggest that there is something so wrong about that fact as to make it rude to say so. That is a rude idea. And so is saying so to the lady who has said so.

Dear Miss Manners: At dinners in the homes of acquaintances (very special evenings: formal dinners, semiformal attire expected, where we go prepared with gifts for the couple in anticipation of a great evening) there were separate tables to accommodate the guests. Some were seated in the dining room with the finest china, stemware, silver and fabulous decorations. Others were seated at a table in either the kitchen with clearly the everyday ware or, in my humble opinion, worse yet, in hallways or some other room of the house.

While I understand that the intent of the hosts may be to include many of their friends at one time for such evening, I think the practice is demeaning to those relegated to other areas of the house than the dining room with the hosts. Whether I am seated in the main room with the hosts or relegated elsewhere, jokes are always made about being at the "B" table. I am left feeling uncomfortable no matter. My husband and I are in disagreement as to the correctness of this practice. Am I being overly sensitive and formal on this issue and should I just be gracious in accepting further invitations, or is this practice lacking in manners?

Gentle Reader: Would you both be satisfied if Miss Manners condones the practice but condemns the way your hosts managed it?

Probably not. But Miss Manners feels like being even-handed, because that is what it takes to manage A and B tables without insulting the guests. The rule is that if they can tell which is A and which is B, you've been rude.

Clearly, the dining room outranks the kitchen, the hosts' table outranks a hostless one, and the good stuff outranks the everyday table things. But what would you say if the kitchen table were set with the best things and the hostess presided over it?

Suppose you were put in the dining room and your husband in the kitchen, and other couples were similarly split between the two rooms? And the hosts went around whispering such things as "I've put you near me so we can have a good talk" or "We consider you such an intimate of the house that I'm going to ask you to sit in the middle next to someone who is dying to meet you"?