In the bad old days, there were gentlemen who thought it a great compliment to tell ladies who had bested them in substantive conversation, "You think like a man."
People who felt free to air their racial and ethnic prejudices, even when members of the targeted group happened to be present, considered that they soothed any umbrage taken by adding, "But of course, you're different."
Foreigners from many lands considered it legitimate social conversation to tell Americans their negative opinions of America and Americans. They especially liked to mention their scorn for American tourists, whether they were addressing Americans who were touring their countries, or those who were encountering them as tourists to America. And they tended to be fiercely touchy about anything said about their own countries.
Miss Manners never knew which was more astonishing -- that the insulters expected to get away with it, or that they nearly always did. Beyond that, the targets would often express general agreement with the insults to their own kind, grateful to be cited as an exception.
Her own dear papa, when his work took the family abroad, was forever being told that he didn't "seem like an American."
"Why not?" he would ask.
"Well, because you are cultured," he would be told. Or because he was "an intellectual."
"Then they look at me," he reported back to the family in indignant amazement, "as if they expect me to thank them."
Since then, we have made some progress in etiquette, if not in human understanding, and two of the three of these forms of insult have become less blatant. That is not to say that the prejudices are no longer held -- only that it is recognized that they are dangerous to air.
The third, prejudicial criticism of America and Americans made to Americans under social circumstances, has become only more blatant.
Miss Manners is not speaking here of serious discussions of governmental policies, cultural trends, economic impact and other such topics that characterize American discourse itself, and in which Americans may want to include foreigners whose opinions interest them. We do not have the jumpiness of people who assume that any dissension threatens their dignity.
What she means is the common sort of bigotry that paints all Americans as childish, selfish, ignorant and boorish -- and which many of them feel they have to accept with good grace. Miss Manners fears that it is not a mistaken notion that good manners make them tacitly or frankly agree to this, but the notion that it might be true.
It certainly is true that many Americans behave badly, and Miss Manners would be the last to deny it. What is not true is that Americans are more likely to be rude than people from other countries. On the contrary, American etiquette principles -- when we live up to them -- mandate respect for all and an open, helpful demeanor toward strangers.
Swallowing insults is not part of the deal. The polite person whose race, gender or ethnic background is attacked acts affronted by coldly cutting off the discussion.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I often attend lovely informal parties hosted by good friends. Once the time has come to say "goodnight" to the host and other guests, the girls with whom I carpooled take 15 minutes to say their goodbyes as they inch their way toward the door. However, I prefer a quick and sincere thank-you to the host, announce how nice it was to see everyone and then leave. Am I being rude in comparison?
GENTLE READER: Rude? Miss Manners considers you a one-person etiquette rescue mission for your hosts. Dearly as they may love their guests, closing the door on them is not as painful as the guests might imagine. Now if you can only learn to speed the lingerers on their way, coming up behind them with your hearty "goodnight" and holding the door open ...