"So where are you folks from?" the bellman would inquire as he saw hotel clients to their rooms.
Presuming that a couple so queried was not from separate married households in the same town as the hotel, this was considered to be an innocuous way of opening a conversation with strangers.
Whatever they replied, he could say, "Never been there myself, but they say it's great." If the visitors were feeling chatty, they could extol the charms of their hometown, but they could also simply murmur assent and ask for extra pillows.
Since the invention of luggage on wheels, Miss Manners finds that the question lingers chiefly among college freshmen, waiters who don't have specials to recite, and passengers trapped on the tarmac in airplanes that are going nowhere.
Elsewhere, it was replaced by the more pointed question, "What do you do?" Suddenly, everyone was racing around demanding everyone else's c.v.
This caused some social consternation. Although that question may be intended merely as a conversation opener, it doesn't work very well as such. What conversation follows tends to consist of stock jokes, complaints, or requests for free help in connection with whatever work was named. Many people have concluded that it is therefore an attempt to find out whether they are important enough to talk to, and the paltry aftermath always convinces them that their questioners have concluded not.
But the next thing Miss Manners knew, a version of "Where are you from?" was back. Only this time it is not as bland as before. Geography is no longer the issue; the inquiry has to do with race and ethnicity. People who answer as carelessly as before, stating their hometowns, are further interrogated as if they are being disingenuous:
"No, where are you really from? Where are you from originally? Where were your parents from?"
This is particularly galling to homegrown Americans whose looks or names strike the descendents of other immigrants as somehow more "foreign" than their own. The presumption that there is a particular American look or nomenclature is not borne out by the census figures.
Those questions are also heartily resented by people of mixed origins, and never mind that this category should include everyone with ancestors who married outside the immediate family. Yet mixed answers are not considered satisfactory. If they do not identify solely with whatever side of the family strikes their nosy interlocutors as more exotic, the conclusion is that they must be ashamed. We have gotten to where children no longer have to be part of a divorce case to be asked to choose between mother and father.
Rude as it is, Miss Manners does not rule out the question itself because of its usefulness as a harmless conversation opener. True, even that was abused when the common reply switched from "I hear it's great" to "Lot of crime around there, I hear," but we do need an occasional break from "Lot of rain we've been having, don't you think?"
Her ruling is that it should be answered only in terms of domicile, hometown or last stop, and that no further probing is allowed. The only time it is proper to question people about their bloodlines is when you are contemplating breeding with them.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have enjoyed music all my life. I like to listen to it and I like to dance to it. Because I have also wanted to enjoy symphonic music, I recently bought season tickets to our city's concert series.
Please help me out with this: Is it rude to tap one's toes at the symphony or even move in any slight way?
I'm amazed that no one seems moved to move, but I've discreetly looked around and NO ONE is moving, not so much as a toe. Is there a rule that governs this sort of thing? If so, no wonder everyone there is over 60.
GENTLE READER: Maybe, but they can move when they're provoked. Miss Manners would not advise this.
The etiquette of symphony concerts is that the only muscles that may be moved are the ones needed for turning to glare at those who dare to breathe too loudly. What is done to toe-tappers is too horrible to mention.