DEAR MISS MANNERS: I was shocked to see a young Olympic contender applauding after her performance on the ice rink. Of late, I have also seen the wives of politicians applaud their husbands' speeches, actors applauding on stage during a curtain call and actors applauding at awards ceremonies.
I dismissed my discomfort as being a spoilsport until, coincidentally, the next day, I watched a biography of President John F. Kennedy on television, and I noticed that his wife Jacqueline did not applaud during his inaugural address, during his memorable "Ask not what your country can do for you" line.
Mrs. Kennedy's behavior is what I was taught as a child -- that it is not permissible to applaud for oneself, nor for any close member of one's family.
Have I got it wrong? Or have times changed? And what about if one's spouse or child wins an award, or if they are participating in a sporting event?
GENTLE READER: Speaking of spoilsports, what you observed may have been an example of the "Hooray for me!" ethic that has replaced sportsmanship. However, it could also have been just a thoughtless example of the general applause inflation that has everyone batting hands together all the time, like so many seals.
That times have indeed changed in these respects does not, however, move Miss Manners to declare public self-congratulation to be correct. Applause is a gesture by which outsiders demonstrate their approval. It should not be used to display one's own conceit, family pride or, in the case of those performing together, mutual admiration.
The proper response, when one receives an award, is modesty. Lowered eyes and a bashful smile will do it in most cases. Blowing kisses back to the audience is not recommended unless you are certain they have gone wild with joy. In the case of family and fellow performers, supporters should beam a look of pride toward the winner.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My sister died recently, much to the dismay of all who knew her. Unfortunately, a few well-wishing friends have used a query that undermines their efforts.
The question is, "Were you and [deceased] close?" If the answer is "Yes", that makes the loss feel all the worse. If the answer is "No," it is a good bet that the distance is a source of regret, and admitting it may suggest the distance is someone's fault.
When I get this line, I reply, "She was my sister," or, for the more persistent, "There's really no good answer to that question," but other survivors might be more taken aback. While you have already addressed "How are you?" in a bereavement situation, would you please remind your gentle readers that this is an even less effective consolation?
GENTLE READER: It certainly is. Some day, one of them is going to get the reply, "No -- we were rivals, and now I've won."
Not from you, Miss Manners trusts. Your response, "She was my sister" is an excellent one, and highly effective if properly delivered. Your eyes and mouth should open in shock when you say this, and the word "sister" should be strongly emphasized to make the point that one does not set a value on relatives.