What's wrong with plainspokenness? Why don't people -- especially those in positions of authority, responsible to their constituencies -- stop all that fancy obfuscating and say what they really mean?
Apparently, some of these folks have come around to that point of view. During one short midsummer heat wave, Miss Manners noticed the following news reports:
-- On the international scene, the Italian prime minister, speaking as president of the European Union, told the German chancellor that he was well suited to play a Nazi concentration camp leader. Then the Italian undersecretary responsible for tourism said German tourists in general were arrogant blonds, and that a particular German deputy in the European Parliament "probably grew up taking part in noisy burping contests after drinking gigantic amounts of beer and gorging himself on fried potatoes."
-- On the national scene, one member of the House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee told another one to shut up, to which that congressman replied, "Come on over here and make me. I dare you -- you little fruitcake. I said you are a fruitcake." This followed a staged walkout, after which the chairman called the police, who set an isolated example of restraint by withdrawing.
-- On a local scene, a priest speaking at the funeral Mass for a former town councilman adapted some text from the book of Revelation and told the assembled mourners, "The Lord vomited people like (name of the deceased) out of his mouth to hell."
Miss Manners does not quite see how any of this plainspokenness made the world go around faster, unless you count its sending everyone involved into a tailspin. What followed were recrimination, retaliation and a lawsuit.
She would like to believe that these instances represented merely a seasonal meltdown. Heat does make people irritable, as we know from the number of midsummer national holidays, including our own, that commemorate successfully rash acts of defiance.
But she fears that this summer's less heroic outbursts are only examples of the trickle-up effect of the general degradation of speech. When discourse was conducted at a politer level, it was chiefly rebels and comedians who broke the rules to seem refreshingly frank and funny. However, the novelty of rudeness has long since worn off, and it no longer produces shock or laughter. Lacing argument with insult and commemoration with criticism is simply commonplace.
But dignitaries took a while to catch up, or rather down. Miss Manners considered that they might be inhibited by the notion that a dignitary should be dignified, but told herself not to be silly. There were the practical considerations: When you are in a position of authority, you need the respect, goodwill and cooperation of both your constituents and your colleagues.
Political campaigns began to get rude when the participants figured that they could impress voters with their indignation but not have to deal with their targets if they won. And, although there is considerable posturing of the kind by those in office, a cooperative form of government, nationally or internationally, requires that they not antagonize peers whose votes they may need.
But if anyone concluded that it was only safe to speak ill of the dead -- no, it isn't. Their survivors are suing.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: At a formal afternoon tea, does the server stand to the right or the left of the person he is serving? The teacup was on the right of me, but, being left-handed, I moved the teacup to the left.
GENTLE READER: Well, then, it would have been kind of messy if the server had continued to pour from the right, wouldn't it?
At private teas, the guest hands the teacup to the hostess, who is seated, so Miss Manners presumes you are speaking of service in a tearoom. In a commercial establishment, it would be considerate, not to mention safer, to move the cup to the right, where the server expects to find it, when receiving a refill.