"Can you say a few words about yourself?"
"A few," Miss Manners said. "Well chosen" also comes to her mind.
Going about your business and assuming that others will be aware of your essential qualities no longer seems to be an option. The most you can expect is that at your funeral, your friends will wax poetic about how much they contributed to your life. If you achieve public attention before that, half the people asked will describe you as "kinda normal, I guess" and the other half as "I dunno, kinda strange."
On numerous ordinary occasions, people are required to provide some background information about themselves. Typically, they attend meetings where people who are drawn together by work, interests or problems go around the table telling their qualifications for being there. They also find themselves at the sort of large social gathering in which the roof provides an introduction (which is etiquette's quaint phrase for encouraging guests to talk even without the host's prompting), but the roof fails to provide material for conversation.
They may receive questionnaires from their alma maters asking them what they have been doing since graduation. They meet -- or become -- a new neighbor, colleague or client and need to provide some biography to launch the relationship. They are stranded with strangers, in airports and other waiting rooms, and turn to conversation as one of the few available amusements.
True, the life story of an honest person is presumably always the same, but each such situation requires that it be edited to fit the circumstances.
Miss Manners has observed, however, that many people have developed a single set piece about themselves, which they deliver in full at each of these opportunities, and sometimes when no such opportunity exists. Furthermore, the forms used are suspiciously reminiscent of patterns intended for specific circumstances that have nothing to do with the ways in which they are used.
The daytime talk-show format is particularly popular: "Mother loved the other children best which led to my substance abuse, but now, with your help, I'm finally going to get my life together." Suitable for support group meetings, but a bad choice for first dates.
Others favor the professional resume: "I became a vice president at 25, and naturally expect compensation commensurate with my talents, but I've gotten bored and am looking for something more challenging." Should be confined to job interviews and clueing in prospective in-laws, but never trotted out at social events.
Despite its bad reputation, the Christmas letter survives as a biographical format: "Here are pictures of the children on our rafting vacation -- as you can see, they are great athletes, and they star on their school teams, but they are also tremendous students, which I suppose comes naturally because we ... " Should be reserved for people from whom an equivalent saga would be not only tolerated but welcomed.
The Academy Awards have a big influence: "I feel so humbled and grateful, and I couldn't have done it without the love and faith that my family and God and my wonderful dog have shown in me." Should be edited down for public consumption, but can be expanded for strictly family occasions.
The Miss America Pageant is also influential: "These are my ideals, and I believe that I can help make the world a better place because I can be anything I want if I have faith and work hard." Excellent for private, late-night talks with intimates and for professional ethical discussions, but should never be unleashed on strangers.
-- The protest rally format keeps gaining: "I see how things really are, and you're making the world a worse place because you don't." Fine for public discussions, but should never been unleashed on family and friends.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: What is the appropriate response when someone knocks on the door of the bathroom or toilet stall that you are in?
GENTLE READER: "I'll be right out!"
If that is not possible, for reasons Miss Manners would prefer not to contemplate, the second choice is, "Sorry, I'll be a few minutes more."