DEAR MISS MANNERS: My fiancee and I are fortunate to have a lovely group of friends with whom we socialize regularly. We all get along fabulously and more often than not have a rollicking good time.
Coincidentally, although we all live in New England, I am the only American citizen in the group. Among them are Middle Easterners, Britons, Caribbean Islanders and Australians. They are here for various reasons but all, except my fiancee, intend to go home eventually.
Now, it is a hobby of mine to read and think long and hard about what America means -- I study America the way some study their Bible -- and normally would love nothing more than an animated discussion on the subject.
For a while, the only complaint I had was how I fit in so well with them because I was not a "typical" American -- which I received in the complimentary spirit it was intended but took, in my heart, to be a backhanded compliment at best.
But now I find myself sitting through marathon gripe sessions about America as International Bad Guy, with no opening for examination as to why and how we wound up where we are, no room for back and forth about whether it is really all that bad.
Worse, they expect me to agree with them, which I cannot bring myself to do, even for the sake of international dinner-table harmony. I've tried to probe by asking why someone feels a certain way, but this was seen as either an attack or a display of such total blind-American ignorance, and resulted in such shocked looks, that I've not repeated the performance.
Comments along the lines of "Isn't it nice that we live in a place where we can shout such opinions from the rooftops" have occurred to me, but I'm afraid they would be a bit too cliche and contentious.
I would much prefer to open up the discussion than to close it down. Can you offer a better solution, Miss Manners? These discussions occur more often than not around my own dinner table. Should my response be dictated by where we are? I'm beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable around my friends.
GENTLE READER: While they are feeling perfectly comfortable insulting your nationality and the country they are visiting, without even feeling the need to explain why.
Time to turn the table.
Not by insulting them or their countries, Miss Manners hastens to add. These are your friends, often also your guests, who had reasons for coming to America. Probably they are just grousing, as people do wherever they are, and indulging in the ugly presumption that it is all right to degrade America to Americans, a surprising number of whom do not take offense.
What you should do is to find other occasions -- not when America is under discussion -- to get them started talking about their own countries. Are they happy with the government, and its foreign policy? Can it take criticism? Does it provide opportunities to make the most of oneself? And are most people there interesting and polite?
Miss Manners feels sure that you will be supplied with ample material for saying "But I thought you said that at home...?" when they complain about the United States.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Is it proper for a young lady to brush her teeth in the presence of a young man?
GENTLE READER: Only if an improper act preceded it.