Would you have to be crazy to snarl at your spouse, child or parents?
Miss Manners would say so, with the understanding that she is using "crazy" in the household sense of "What -- are you crazy?"
There those people are, not just knowing where you live but possessing their own keys. Would a person in possession of his or her faculties antagonize someone who is constantly lurking around the house?
Inevitably. What are families for, if not to drive one another crazy? You declare your undying love for people, share your life with them, and look what they do:
Monopolize the bathroom. Leave the gas tank empty. Mess up their computers by once again doing exactly what you told them not to do, and then expecting you to drop what you're doing and fix it.
So, naturally, there are words. A key question is how many words, how often they are spoken, and, for Miss Manners, which words they are.
Another profession, one with a less benign definition of crazy, is interested in this matter. The American Psychiatric Association is considering classifying abrasive family relationships as symptoms of mental illness in otherwise presumably healthy individuals. The explanation offered is that constant battling between couples or parents and children could constitute "relational disorders" of a pathological nature.
Its focus is, of course, on behavior of an entirely different order of magnitude than the common bits of friction Miss Manners has just delineated. Domestic discord ranges from mere squabbling to sustained hostilities to criminal acts, and she recognizes that etiquette's jurisdiction is over only the mildest sort, while the justice system must deal with domestic violence.
Psychiatry has long treated the middle range, and Miss Manners would not dream of interfering in its present, ah, family squabbles over how this should be regarded. Her modest desire is only to offer the principles and lessons to be gleaned from her end of the domestic continuum.
In the etiquette business, we use neither medical nor legal terms. Rather than sickness and health, legal or illegal, we think of the alternatives of human behavior as being natural and bearable. Our aim is to twist what is natural into something bearable.
We notice that those who arrive in a family with no previous behavioral record of any kind, receiving huge welcomes by other residents who put themselves out to meet the demands of the newcomer, behave the worst. To a person, they scream and cry at the least inconvenience they encounter, and sometimes when all their conditions are met but they happen to feel fussy anyway.
Yet we are also aware that these people cannot survive alone and that even when they reach the point when they may be able to do so, few choose to live in isolation. They must therefore learn to make themselves tolerable to their housemates and to the larger communities in which they dwell, hence the practical justification for etiquette.
This is why etiquette has never gone in for the volatile methods of dealing with domestic conflict that have been popularly adapted from the other disciplines. It cares less about legislating contributions and privileges to achieve parity than it does about whether people can be accommodated reasonably. And rather than encourage honest communication of everyone's feelings, it recommends suppressing expression of the nasty ones and knowing when to substitute kindness for openness.
Those who ignore the dictates of domestic etiquette will have ample opportunity to try the full range of legal and psychiatric solutions, as home life is bound to get worse.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I was invited to dinner via phone, two weeks before the date, and accepted. Four days before the dinner, I was called and uninvited because the table seats only eight. I felt very hurt by this, and I wonder how I should respond to another dinner at their home.
GENTLE READER: Politely, of course. Miss Manners suggests, "How kind of you to invite me again after all the trouble I must have caused you last time. However, I'm afraid that, once again, I will be unable to attend."