DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have just discovered that I have been behaving outrageously for most of my adult life, and I am as mortified as anyone with decent self-esteem could possibly be under the circumstances.
I have always eaten the roll poised on the small plate on the right side of my dinner plate, usually behind or a snudge to the right or left of my wine glass(es). At dinner last night, I was informed by my right-hand neighbor that I was buttering her bread.
I hoped to make restitution by reaching for what I had thought was my husband's roll (he was on my left), only to discover that he had already torn off and devoured a large chunk of it, making it a less-than-appetizing substitute for my dinner-mate on the right. The quandary circled clockwise around the table until a pristine roll was discovered three places to my right and was passed along to my now-starving neighbor. I will be terrified of bread for the rest of my life.
Am I (and everyone from 7 o'clock through 3 o'clock) the only person in the universe who just never knew? Does it signify that this happened in Europe and not in America? Please set me straight. It's not that I don't believe that I was wrong but, after so many years of living this lie, a second opinion from an impeccable source will reinforce the lesson.
GENTLE READER: The second opinion is that you should stop stealing bread from the grasp of the hungry. This is as shady a practice in America as in Europe, and the attempt to make your husband look greedy for the same offense did not escape Miss Manners' notice.
When there are auxiliary individual food plates, such as for bread or salad, yours are on your left. Your water and wine glasses are on your right. Miss Manners hopes that you are sincerely reformed now, and are not harboring the notion that the distinction only demonstrates how silly etiquette is. It is no more ridiculous -- or less necessary -- than rules about which side of the street to drive on.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: "Excuse me!" exclaimed the stranger in a tone so innocent and friendly that I looked at him in acknowledgement before I could think better of it. (After all, he might just be asking for directions.)
"My wife is having a baby right this minute and I need to get to the hospital. But I've just been mugged..."
Requests for money preceded by elaborate backstories are annoying and my eventual response is always the same, but I still feel bad about cutting off the speaker before he or she has actually asked for a handout. Is there an acceptable way to terminate these conversations as soon as their objective becomes clear?
GENTLE READER: You need only say, "Sorry, I can't help" and move on, saving the speaker the necessity of making a full-length pitch in vain. Miss Manners is even sorrier about the necessity of concluding that someone in apparent distress must necessarily be a con artist.