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Today’s phone habits just don’t ring true

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The telephone just used to ring, as Miss Manners recalls. Or refused to ring, depending on one's state of anxiety.

If not answered, a telephone would eventually stop ringing and no one would be the wiser. The person being called never knew who called, and the caller never knew why the call wasn't taken. You could have made a philosophical case that a telephone could not be said to have rung when nobody heard it and it left no trace.But today an ordinary call sets off such an amazing array of gadgets that it seems an imposition to interrupt them merely to chat.

In what passes for a nice, quiet household, the first challenge is to figure out which telephone is ringing.

Is it the home telephone or the home-office telephone or the children's telephone? Is it a call or a fax? Is it the priority ring or the don't-bother ring?

Is it none of the above? Are all the visitors frantically searching in their pockets and purses?

And that's just to locate the telephone. Whether to answer it is a whole other question.

Miss Manners doesn't want to hear the simplistic answer: "Oh, go ahead, why not? You're home and you obviously don't have anything better to do or you wouldn't be spending your time running around checking all the telephone equipment like that. Someone might actually be trying to reach you."

Suppose it is a fax and the fax signal starts shrieking in your ear? Suppose it's someone who didn't want to talk to you, but only to leave a voice message?

Answering machines used to record indignant voices saying, "Pick up, will you? I know you're there!" Now they carry disappointed voices saying, "Oh, I didn't think you were there. I don't need to talk to you."

It has become no more possible to ignore a call entirely than to pretend not to have made one. The equipment insists on holding everyone accountable. The telephone's owner is supposed to give his whereabouts and his intentions as to returning the call. The caller is supposed to supply a motive as well as a record of the call.

Any attempts to forget the whole thing will be severely thwarted. If you dialed the wrong number, or you solved the problem elsewhere, or you invited someone else to take the place of the person you couldn't reach - there is no sneaking off once the call is placed. Through caller ID or the call-back service, the miscreant will be traced and confronted.

None of this is good for people's tempers. Everybody edgily demanding to know where everybody else is and what everybody wants is making for unpleasant conversations. It is time for Miss Manners to step in with calming manners.

The polite technique that would help tame all this modern technology happens to be an old-fashioned one: Pretending Not to Notice. This is a skill that had all sorts of uses back before everyone thought it necessary to supply running critiques of everybody else.

Miss Manners has long defended the option of pretending not to notice that the telephone is ringing -indeed, she considers it an obligation when one is engaged with real people who are actually present. Now she is adding the requirement that they pretend not to notice who called if that person did not intentionally leave a message.

It seems only fair that the telephone system give everyone an equally fair chance of avoiding everyone else.

Dear Miss Manners: When my husband and I stay at spa resorts with hot tubs which are "clothing optional," we prefer to use these facilities without swimsuits. On occasion, however, we encounter other occupants wearing swimsuits, who appear surprised and embarrassed by our nudity.

Should we ignore the discrepancy in our attire and make the usual small talk? Ask their indulgence or permission? Always start wearing a suit and let consensus determine the dress code?

We don't want to spoil their enjoyment, but neither do we want to feel constrained in our enjoyment of what should be a relaxing experience.

Gentle Reader: Miss Manners is a great believer in observing dress codes as a form of symbolic respect for the community and the occasion. But you have done that. So what are these people staring at (Please note: This is not a question to which Miss Manners desires an answer.)

As everybody concerned seems to be complying with the code - indeed, it would be difficult to imagine how one could fail to do so - there is no cause for embarrassment on any side. Just look them in the eye when you chat with them, and let us hope that they do the same.