Dumb, dumbstruck, dumbfounded: Miss Manners is wearying of the cycle.
A dumb remark is made. The person to whom it is said is dumbstruck. Miss Manners is dumbfounded at how often this keeps happening.
She isn't even counting remarks that are made with vicious intent, or questions that are asked to pry into other people's business. Those have their own, worse categories of rudeness.
Genuinely dumb remarks are those that sound insulting, even though no ill will went into them, or sound nosy, even though no real curiosity prompted them. They are uttered just because the speaker felt inclined to say something, and never thought to analyze how it might strike the target.
The most popular dumb remark now seems to be "You look tired," beating out the "Smile!" command, which had a long run.
This replacement is at least more likely to produce results. Telling someone he or she looks tired has the effect of making the person look even more tired, the original state being compounded by the wearying knowledge that one's dragginess is so obvious. But then, instructions to cheer up generally produced the same effect.
The appearance of other people, almost always a dangerous subject for commentary (the exception being when someone you love gets dressed up and it becomes dangerous not to comment), is a major inspiration for dumb remarks. To point out to others that they are short, tall, fat, thin, pregnant, using a wheelchair, looking anxious or blushing is not as informative as many people imagine, and to inquire why is not likely to enlighten or amuse even the one who asks.
When it comes to unsolicited suggestions for improving the appearance and such, the merely thoughtless are often confused with proselytizers, who are as purposeful as they are rude. But instead of recommending therapists and handing out exercise plans, the former just deliver offhand remarks, such as "You could stand a haircut," "That's a terrible neighborhood you live in," "You should get married," "Are you still in that same job?" or a simple "Yuck!" at the sight of what someone else is eating.
Birth, marriage, divorce and death seem to move practically everyone to astonishing dumbness. Nobody much cares if prospective parents want a boy or a girl, but people keep asking them. This is about as useful as asking engaged couples if they know what they are doing, and about as suitable to casual conversation as asking divorcing couples what went wrong. When there is a death, people don't ask the bereaved if they are pleased; they tell them they should be: "It's better this way."
Commenting on children who are present, guessing and asking about people's ancestral origins, and assessing people's possessions are other rich sources of dumb remarks. Miss Manners is regularly besieged by the victims, who beg or suggest a response in case it happens again. Something witty and withering, they specify. A putdown.
But while Miss Manners has nothing against wit, she refuses to resort to using rudeness against the rude, and certainly not against those who parrot thoughtless remarks without intention to hurt.
Fortunately, she has also found that the most effective reaction to dumb remarks is dumbfoundedness. Looking at them wide-eyed and saying nothing has the simple charm of leaving the dumb remark echoing in the air for everyone to hear how dumb it was. Sometimes even the person who said it.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Several members of my working group at the office have adopted the custom of bringing back small remembrances for the other members of the group when they go on vacation. How long should I display these items in my office? I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but mine is a small cubicle, and it's getting rather cluttered.
Next, do I need to reciprocate? Unlike my colleagues, who are mostly unmarried, without children, and take exotic trips, I am a young mother, and most of my vacation time is spent doing exciting things like going to see my in-laws. Darling little souvenirs of these trips (postcards of the nearby flood-control channel, perhaps?) are in rather short supply.
GENTLE READER: Bring them your mother-in-law's cookies or, if she doesn't bake, ones that you bought for the children before they got carsick. Miss Manners assures you that your colleagues will be just as happy not to have yet another decoration for their cubicles, even though these can be gracefully jettisoned with the words "How darling -- I'm going to take this home."