The tabloids at the supermarket check-out counters must be turning timid. Customers who should be concentrating on how movie stars manage to get disillusioned after only two days of marriage are, instead, focusing their attention on one another.
Miss Manners knows how volatile a situation this is. With nothing to do but stand in line, they turn into etiquette vigilantes. They have no trouble finding outrageous offenses.
There is the trickster who gets into the express lane by counting two lemons as one item. And the criminal who secures an illicit advantage by leaving a half-filled basket in line and then darts off to collect more groceries. And the dummies who try several swipes before they figure out which way to insert their credit cards.
They are generally met with glares that can sizzle steak and sotto voce comments that can be heard as far away as the produce department. But lately, Miss Manners has been hearing more ominous analyses of scofflaw strategies and motives.
"I was at the supermarket waiting in line for one of those automatic teller machines," reported one Gentle Reader, "and I've been waiting for five minutes or more on my lunch break and I'm itching to get back. I was distracted for a moment when I was next in line and this woman and her kid cut in and started using the next available teller.
"Now part of me is thinking, did she just cut in line or what? Then I thought, who is worse, me telling a mother off because she did something so stupid like that and she hopes that people will keep their mouths shut because she has her kid with them, or her because she's doing stuff like that with her child in tow thinking that nobody will say anything?"
The next Gentle Reader was at the deli counter. "Ahead of me was a lady who arrived just before I did. She proceeded to request five different items, all of which had to be sliced to her exact specifications, and one or two of her selections required discussion beforehand. The lady behind the counter was not exactly moving at snappy speed, nor did she request help. It took about 10 minutes, and by the time it was done, three people had lined up behind me.
"But at last the lady moved away, and the counterperson had taken my order, when suddenly the first customer was back, wanting to know about a spot on her bologna -- a spot that was there because it had been cut off the end of the loaf. She asked for substitute slice, which the counter lady did, abandoning me in mid-order.
"I was silently seething at this last, pointless delay when the lady turned to me and said, 'Sorry.' I suppose she expected me to say, 'Oh, that's all right,' but, in fact, it wasn't. I was annoyed. So I said nothing, and did not look at her.
"When she got her bologna back she went away in a huff. Was I wrong in inflicting the silent treatment? I run into this situation often enough that I wonder if the people at the front of the line aren't stretching things out as a strange little power trip."
Miss Manners sympathizes with people who are kept waiting by miscreants or fussbudgets, and has no objection to polite protests, such as "Excuse me, but I believe I'm next" or "Could you finish my order first, please?"
But when she hears dark speculation about a power trip at the deli counter, or the use of a child as a human shield to cut ahead, she worries that there must be a national dearth of headline-worthy sex scandals.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I was told that in a restaurant the man should sit on the outside so as to be closest to placing the order with the waiter or waitress. My boyfriend insists that he sit so that his back is not facing the room. Please advise.
GENTLE READER: Miss Manners must advise you that the gentleman either has serious enemies, or he is making some.
If he wants to keep his back to the wall so that no one can sneak up and attack him, you might want to know why. If he merely likes to sit there and considers it irrelevant that you or anyone else might also prefer that position, you might want to know that. Either way, he is in danger.