DEAR MISS MANNERS: On Thanksgiving, my husband and I have for a number of years gone to a family dinner at my sister's. There are other relatives in attendance, usually at least eight, sometimes more.
Because we're there for four or five hours and the event includes hors d'oeuvres, chatting, playing with children and other casual activities, I usually bring along my holiday cards to address. I accomplish this one card at a time, keeping the stack near me, not spread out.
I was floored yesterday when my sister told me she'd thought for years that my mindless task, during which I can talk, nibble and sip, was rude. I thanked her for telling me but said I planned to continue and adjourned to the basement to do so, returning to help with the meal.
Afterwards, I gave a lot of thought to this matter. I don't view my task as any more disruptive to proceedings than knitting or doing needlework. It certainly takes as little attention. Then I compared it to paging through a newspaper or magazine or even watching TV (always indulged in for football games on Thanksgiving), although that tends to be a group activity.
Can you advise? Before I broach the subject again with my sister to explain my point of view, I'd like to know if there are guidelines in this type of group setting.
GENTLE READER: What about video games, texting, telephoning and all the other ways people now avoid the boredom of socializing with their relatives and friends?
Social multitasking has become a serious etiquette problem despite the benign origins that you mention. Needlework, including knitting, has indeed been long considered acceptable, even decorous. Although this dates from a time when ladies were presumed not to take part in serious conversation anyway, Miss Manners agrees that it is generally compatible with full participation.
Four years of watching college classmates turn out three-color sweaters while simultaneously mastering Greek and higher mathematics has convinced her of that. She has therefore grandmothered it in, so to speak.
Perhaps you would agree that all forms of communication with people who are not present do remove attention from those who are, which makes those electronic possibilities rude.
But you are pleading a middle ground. Miss Manners concedes that on long visits, typically including overnight stays but stretching it to include all-day holiday gatherings, the company may divide into sub-group activities, such as playing or watching a game together. Parents may need some time tending to small children. Someone may be in urgent need of a nap.
However, let us not forget that the idea is for people to get together. Despite the claims of students that they can do their homework while watching television, reading and writing require concentration. And even if you don't give it that, these activities look as if the full concentration is focused elsewhere.
So yes, Miss Manners agrees with your sister and hostess that bringing and performing an unrelated social task shows that you anticipate being bored. And you proved it when challenged by choosing that task over the company.