DEAR MISS MANNERS: Please answer a question from a poor "common person" who has been forced to learn manners the hard way.
Is there a rule for the following situation? When someone of higher status (doctor, lawyer, clergy) approaches or passes by in a public setting, must the "commoner" wait to be addressed first before speaking to the more socially prominent or professionally superior acquaintance?
GENTLE READER: You don't say where you live, but you might consider emigrating to a society that has heard of the 18th-century Enlightenment.
In America, for example, we do not have commoners or social superiors. Doctors, lawyers and members of the clergy are considered as good as anyone else, whereas in aristocratic societies, they were treated as high-level servants of the upper class.
Our idea is to show respect for all -- far too often interpreted, Miss Manners acknowledges, as showing respect for none. So she does not mean to discourage you from being careful about how you treat others.
And, in fact, we do have some systems of precedence, although nothing as rough as the system of commoners and superiors that you imagine. In the social realm, youth is supposed to give precedence to age, and gentlemen to ladies. In the working world, age and gender are not factors, but rank is -- the boss and other supervisors have precedence. The assumption is that the levels are temporary -- everyone grows older, many people rise in their work and even gender seems to be negotiable, Miss Manners has heard.
But the rule of not speaking until you are spoken to is not one of our conventions. Even the queen of England, who is not supposed to be addressed by others in that class-stratified society, has learned not to snub well-meaning greetings when she is in America.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My husband and I have two daughters, ages 3 and 6, that we adopted from China when they were babies. Many times when we are in public, absolute strangers will come up to our family and ask within our children's hearing if they are "real" sisters.
If I say, "yes," they continue to press me about if they are biologically related. As far as we know, our daughters are not biologically related. However, we don't feel that we owe strangers explanations about our personal family business.
Could you please offer some suggestions on how to answer this "invasive" question? We want to set a good example for our children, and we don't want to be rude, but it is getting tiresome.
GENTLE READER: Since you know from the wording of the first question that the second one is coming, Miss Manners advises nipping this conversation early. She suggests saying gently, "Yes, they are sisters, and I am their mother. But I have been teaching them not to talk to strangers, so I'm afraid that you will have to excuse me, please."