When the United States Supreme Court strode bravely through two fields of etiquette that Miss Manners knows to be strewn with landmines, she had full confidence that it would emerge safely. This is because the justices were careful to stick to handling the legal aspects, at which they are quite good, and leave the difficult part to her.
The two fearsome areas are canvassing and tipping. In the etiquette business, they are recognized as major sources of annoyance and anxiety in which the rude are generally rewarded and those trying hardest to be polite are the most likely to be victimized.
The doorbell rings, and the resident allows himself to be interrupted and to be addressed on views and beliefs that are considered so personal that one is cautioned not to bring them up lightly with even one's most intimate friends. Many feel that once they discover that the summons is not connected with an anticipated package or guest, they are trapped and owe the courtesy of listening, even if they have no intention of changing their politics or religion. It is the ones who respond rudely with threats, insults and slammed doors who minimize the imposition.
Tipping upsets both those who are worried that they are not giving the right amount and those who are certain that they are not getting the right amount. The formulae are so complicated with factors of geography and luxury level, as well as job description and quality of service, that there is plenty of room for abuse from all parties -- customer, employee and employer -- and it usually comes laced with some form of rudeness.
Rudeness is not illegal, nor should it be, even though it would save Miss Manners a great deal of trouble to be able to back up her persuasive powers with police action. The law has quite enough to do without nosing into every case of petty irritation.
The Supreme Court upheld freedom of speech when it struck down a village ordinance that would control door-to-door canvassing through issuing permits. In regard to tipping, it dealt only with the tax angle, permitting the Internal Revenue Service to estimate tips when calculating payroll taxes.
Fortunately, Miss Manners can offer some relief to polite people who feel obligated to hear out strangers who ring their doorbells. The choice is not between rudeness and pretending to be interested when one is not. Those who have peepholes in their doors may ignore any summons entirely, and those who open the door mistakenly may properly close it quietly after saying, "Thank you, but I'm not interested." They should regard it as saving the canvasser's time, as well as their own.
Tipping is a more difficult area, because the etiquette outrages are legion: Customers who stiff low-paid employees whose tips are an expected part of their income, workers who use embarrassment or insult to extract larger tips, industry spokesmen who give out false etiquette information about how much tipping is proper, and so on.
Even the supposed advantages of the tipping are questionable. The idea that one gets better service by paying above the stated price cannot escape the implication that substandard service is otherwise provided -- unfair as that may be in the case of hard-working individuals. And the notion that it is a way of rewarding hard work is undercut by the fact that the lavish tips go to the august people who assign tables rather than to the people who bus those tables.
Having long campaigned in vain to abolish this unseemly system and build the cost of service into the price of doing business, Miss Manners sees hope in the new decision. Whatever is said in defense of tipping as a privilege for the customer and an incentive for the worker, it is an open secret that its true value is its elusiveness in regard to taxes.
Should this decision make it worthwhile to pay restaurant and other workers a full and dependable income, she will be most grateful to her legal sisters and brethren.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: When you are having a party, dinner or whatever the occasion, and you state a time that it starts, what do you do when a guest comes unexpectedly an hour early? What is the proper etiquette on handling guests arriving to a party before the start time of the event?
GENTLE READER: First you reassure the embarrassed guest that he need not be embarrassed by saying, "I'm so glad to have a chance for a real visit with you before the others get here." Then you leave him sitting alone in the living room while you finish getting dressed.