DEAR MISS MANNERS: I was raised in a loving, generous family that I had always thought to be a nice group of people until I ventured out into the business world and began making new "sophisticated" friends.
Frequently, I (and other friends/colleagues who apparently aren't as well-bred) seem to break the rules on manners. It's not like I am stupid or mean, I just don't know what the "book" says on such etiquette. I have heard people mention about "so-and-so's" behavior at a wedding or a fancy dinner, e.g. "I'm going to be sure I save enough money to be able to take my children out for five-course dinners so they know how to behave in that situation...."
I thought the purpose of etiquette is to be courteous to others and make them feel comfortable, not inferior. I am not suggesting my friends are snobs, nor is anyone who follows your advice, but just because you follow all the rules on etiquette doesn't make you a nice person and vice versa. I have failed to see many of my colleagues understand this.
It is sad, actually. What is the polite thing to do when someone says or does something that breaks conventional rules of manners, but you know their intentions are innocent? One of my friends said you can be thankful you were "raised better," but that doesn't seem nice to me to be thankful you are better than others.
GENTLE READER: Nobody, least of all Miss Manners, will argue with your declaration that being courteous is more important than knowing how to eat a five-course meal (and thank you for not putting it as "knowing which fork to use").
But this is like saying that it is more important to be healthy than it is to know how to play baseball. Yes, health is crucially important. But if you plan to play baseball, you need to learn the rules.
The underlying purpose of manners is to enable people to get along with one another, which includes not only being nice but using civil means to settle differences and conflicts. Yet every activity -- not just meals and weddings, but work of various kinds, shopping, driving, even just walking down the street -- has its specific rules, derived from both practicality and custom.
Courtesy requires making allowances for well-intentioned mistakes. You ignore them, unless they are being committed by your own children. Sneering at ignorance is not only rude, but dangerous, since everybody has to count on tolerance at some time, because nobody knows all the rules for all possible activities. Except Miss Manners, of course, and she is far too polite to let on.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: What does R.S.V.P. stand for?
GENTLE READER: "Respondez, s'il vous plais," which is "Respond, please" in French. It does not stand for Recreational Spontaneity is Very Pleasant, as many people seem to think.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Creamed-soup bowls have two handles. Is it ever proper to use the handles and pick up the bowl to drink the contents?
GENTLE READER: Yes. But since no one except you and Miss Manners seems to know this, it is also an excellent way to get the attention of other diners.