A horrid burst of euphoria often follows an outburst of rudeness. The offender does his offensive little number and then compounds it by declaring, "I feel better now."
Well, sure. As in the case of other unfortunate bodily emissions, the person who does it feels relieved, while everyone else is suffering from the suddenly poisoned atmosphere.
Miss Manners suffers from this sequence of events even when she is not in the immediate vicinity. That people sometimes lapse from perfect behavior, she is all too aware. But why can't they at least feel ashamed of themselves?
Etiquette is generous in providing ways of dealing with failure to meet its standards. It not only makes allowances for newcomers who are not yet familiar with the particular etiquette forms they are encountering, but requires those who are to help spare them embarrassment.
It even has a mechanism for inexcusable lapses, a form of social whiteout called the apology. This requires some effort. The amount of self-condemnation has to be fitted to the error committed: too little, and the assumption is that the apology is insincere; too much, and the assumption is that the apology is sarcastic.
It is true that sincerity can be simulated, which many regard as a flaw. How can they know if the apologizer is really, really sorry in his heart of hearts?
They can't. But Miss Manners does not regard that as a flaw. Sincerity has its place among the moral virtues, but if everyone's truest feelings about everyone else were constantly being made obvious, civilization would collapse. Even the kindest of souls occasionally harbor unkind thoughts, but if they can plausibly deny them, no harm is done. To apologize is to recognize the legitimacy of the complaint, and usually that is all it takes to restore peace.
All the same, Miss Manners counts on a smidgeon of commitment to the notion that peacefulness is desirable, and that therefore one should refrain from actions that rile up others. And she counts on a conscience that produces a bad feeling, rather than a triumphant one, when one is guilty of such an action.
Unfortunately, there was a time, not so long in the past, when the society exerted itself to drum out these qualities. It condemned feelings of guilt, hardly bothering to distinguish between irrational ones and the valuable mechanism by which wrongdoers punish themselves. It deemed it courageous to say provocative things bluntly, with the misleading expectation that insults would be appreciated if they represented honest feelings. It promised health benefits to getting unpleasant things off one's chest, without considering that other people were then getting them in the face.
This was a sort of reverse child-rearing, teaching adults to forgo inhibitions and come straight out with -- anything at all. It did not work out well. After all, there are still thoughts that are socially unacceptable, and you have to learn to control them.
You may have an occasional accident. In that case, excuse yourself, clean up as best you can, and for goodness' sake don't point to it with pride.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: While dining out I asked myself and my dinner companion what would be the proper time during the meal to offer a taste to the other party? Would it be immediately, following the first bite, midway through the meal, or at the end?
GENTLE READER: All three are possible with the right dinner companion, but each has a different meaning.
An offer made after your first taste means, "This is wonderful, and I'd like you to share it." Offered mid-meal, it means, "Aren't you going to offer me some of what you're eating?" And at the end it means, "Here, why don't you have this; I can't finish it."
Miss Manners does not advise the second with any but an intimate friend, and the third with any but a spouse.