DEAR MISS MANNERS: Why, in the traditional table settings, do knife edges face toward the plate when it seems more convenient to have them facing out?
GENTLE READER: Convenient for doing what?
Miss Manners hasn't forgotten the dinner table danger of which Cardinal Richelieu warned us (in 1669, but she has a long memory): That conversation can become volatile, and the diners are all armed with knives. He took the precaution of ordering the pointed tips to be blunted, but even those would not pass through airport security today.
Knives are correctly set so that a leftward flick of the right hand positions it to cut what is on the plate. What else were you planning to do with your knife?
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am in a pinch right now -- my male cousin will be marrying a woman within the next week. I do not like this woman at all and so am not attending the wedding, partially because this family of mine is in El Salvador, while my family and I are in Canada.
However, I would like to send a gift, as I love my cousin and his mother very much. In this action I would still prefer to favor the groom to show my disapproval without being rude. What can I buy for their wedding gift?
GENTLE READER: Are you seriously asking Miss Manners to suggest an insulting wedding present? Or are you thinking that your cousin wouldn't notice that you sent something for him alone -- and that his bride would be miffed, but yet not point it out to him? And that the family wouldn't hear about it -- in two countries? And that ...
All right, Miss Manners is getting carried away. It probably wouldn't burgeon into an international scandal. Possibly they wouldn't particularly care.
But it's still not nice. You needn't send them a wedding present at all, but at least wish them well -- both of them, if you hope to remain on good terms with your cousin.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My workplace has closed and in two weeks will reopen. I'll run into dozens of people who will ask, "How were your holidays?"
Over the past month, three people I love have died in separate events, and another family member is gravely ill. Assuming that I can refrain from crying at the question, how do I answer? "Fine" is not possible; "You don't want to know" just invites more questions.
Is there a friendly way to say "Please don't ask" to a casual questioner? I can't possibly explain the circumstances over and over without dissolving, and yet pretending that nothing unusual has happened is also beyond me.
GENTLE READER: It is strange, now that you draw it to Miss Manners' attention, that "Don't ask" inevitably provokes the reply, "Why -- what happened?"
You should therefore practice a vague, low-key answer, such as, "Not great, family illness and such." Oddly enough, this is less likely to produce an inquiry, especially as you should head one off by immediately following this with, "How was yours?"
However, it will suggest to others that the proper mode will be complaining, rather than bragging. Listening to whatever they can muster in the way of woes -- dinner was overcooked, someone brought a toddler with sniffles who is bound to have infected everyone -- will be the price of your privacy.
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, firstname.lastname@example.org; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)