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Miss Manners: Be kind: Use table manners

Who wants to sign up for remedial eating?

Practically nobody. A few souls out to impress people at restaurants seek late-in-life instructions, perhaps, but everybody else seems to be managing to shove it in without seeing a problem.

It is the people who have to look at them who see the problems. They report seeing open mouths full of food, knives and forks poised as if to kill, arms spread protectively around plates, napkins used as handkerchiefs, fingers in communal plates, fingers being licked — all of these and more, accompanied by the corresponding sound effects. And they are losing their appetites.

The witnesses who report these transgressions to Miss Manners are not the sniffy folks you would imagine — foremost among whom you imagine Miss Manners herself, although she assures you that she has better things to do than monitor other people's meals. Frankly, there is hardly an activity that wouldn't be better than that.

They are the lovers, friends, roommates, relatives and colleagues of the transgressors. A typical plea is from someone who declares a mad passion for a person described as perfect in every respect except for a dramatic lack of table manners. But being unable to stomach watching that person's route to the stomach is close to being a romantic deal-breaker.

So let us skip, for now, the question of why table manners are important — if they are important to someone important to the eater, that should be enough — and get right to the technique.

In American table manners, all food is taken to the mouth by the right hand (by right-handed eaters), the left one being kept in the lap, atop the napkin, unless needed to steady food with the fork while it is being cut with the knife.

That supposedly lethal mystery, Which Fork to Use, has a disappointingly simple solution: the one farthest from your plate. The fork is used for non-liquid food; the spoon, in a gesture away from one's clothes, for liquids. With few exceptions (grapes, bread, celery and — surprise! — asparagus), the fingers are not considered dining utensils, which is just as well, because licking food from them is forbidden.

After food is inserted in the mouth, the mouth remains closed until it is empty. It also remains silent.

Extraneous objects — pits, bones, engagement rings that have been hidden too well — come out via the instrument that treacherously brought them in. Anything remaining in the teeth that cannot be dislodged by the tongue in a closed mouth requires a trip to the bathroom.

At the conclusion of each course, the flatware that was used is placed along the plate at a diagonal.

See? It's not all that hard. At least not compared with trying to get along with someone whose teeth you set on edge at every meal.

Dear Miss Manners: My fiance and I are in a predicament. We are getting married and have pretty much everything we need for household items. We don't have room for more towels, sheets, etc. I don't need china; I'll inherit the family china someday. We could, however, use money (I know that's tacky). How do we let our guests know that we would prefer money rather than gifts we don't need? Is there a proper way to do this?

Gentle Reader: There is no proper way to be tacky. Miss Manners hopes this doesn't come as too much of a shock to you.

Miss Manners' most recent book is "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (Freshly Updated)" (W.W. Norton & Co., 2005). To call for help about cellular telephone usage, send a long, self-addressed, stamped envelope and $2 to Newsletter, P.O. Box 167, Wickliffe, OH 44092, and you'll receive "Miss Manners On Cellular Telephone Courtesy." E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at © 2005 by Judith Martin. Distributed by United Features Syndicate