DEAR MISS MANNERS: My husband and several of our closest friends are immigrants to this country. Through them, I often meet other immigrants and we generally tend to get on quite well. As we are discovering that we enjoy each other's company, I am often told that I "don't seem like an American."
I know that they mean this as a compliment, but I can't help bristling at the back-handedness of it. The implication -- that because I am bright, good-natured, tolerant, polite, I am somehow "un-American" -- is, as I'm sure you understand, an insult to my country more than it is a compliment to me. (I admit I bristle even more at the knowledge that there are bright, good-natured, tolerant, polite Americans who would take this as a compliment of the highest order.)
Generally, I affect a saddened look and try to laugh it off, saying something to the effect of: "Really? My grandmother must be rolling in her grave." But usually this only spurs them to explain that I should be flattered because Americans are generally so ugly.
When appropriate, I've enjoyed using this as a stepping stone to a discussion of perspective and personality types -- and generally I've gotten my point across -- but there isn't always room for that kind of discussion. I'm wondering what I could say at this point to defend my country and my honor without causing or betraying any consternation.
GENTLE READER: As you know, it takes more than an offhand comment to jar people out of their prejudices. Miss Manners not only commends you for undertaking those discussions, but thoroughly understands why you long for an abbreviated version.
The problem is that indication that you are not flattered by these comments will puzzle those who assume that you share their assumptions. So Miss Manners' assignment, as she understands it, is to produce something that will only vaguely trouble them, prompting them to think about it later rather than to argue with you at the time.
Try out these:
"Well, I'm working on it (seeming American)."
"I'm sorry you feel that way."
"But that's the beauty of America -- all of us 'look American.'"
DEAR MISS MANNERS: What with the increasing lack of manners we are exposed to in America, I am in need of guidance as to when, if ever, one may correct or point out someone's rudeness.
I am especially irritated by those who plainly take advantage of those with good manners in order to get what they want, be it cutting ahead in line, blocking aisles, using cell phones, etc. Frequently those in authority will do nothing.
When is the line crossed between showing good manners and willingly being used as a doormat? I am frankly getting tired of deferring to rudeness.
GENTLE READER: Then don't practice it. One of the great sources of rudeness in this society is the bizarre notion that being treated rudely is a license to be rude oneself. Besides, it never solves anything. Retaliatory rudeness never inspires a response of "Whoops, I'm so sorry, please don't be mad." It inspires more retaliatory rudeness -- and so the cycle continues, until someone gets punched, sued or shot.
Frankly, Miss Manners is getting tired of that.
But deferring to annoying treatment is not the only alternative. The term you need is "Excuse me," as in "Excuse me, but the end of the line is over there," "Excuse me, may I please get through?" and "Excuse me, could you talk a little more quietly, please?" In many cases, that is all it takes. As for the hard cases, at least you will not have pushed them to new depths of rudeness.