DEAR MISS MANNERS: Say I have a guest over for a meal and I don't agree with their opinions and lifestyle. How do I politely tell them I disagree without coming on too strong?
GENTLE READER: Parties at your place, where hospitality includes luring a guest for a critique of his or her life, must be a barrel of fun. Do you have many repeaters?
Miss Manners has been straining to think of someone who might warrant such interference, and yet be described as "a guest," rather than a minor child in your custody. You don't even call this apparently misguided person your close friend or relative -- not that this would entitle you to launch a surprise attack at your table.
There is an ancient rule forbidding a host to kill his guest, and many a legendary character waited impatiently for his enemy to step outside the premises. Attacking someone's way of life is somewhat equivalent psychologically. If you must do so, Miss Manners requires you to ask the target frankly for the opportunity -- providing a fair chance at his making a run for it -- and not to spring it during a social encounter.
Challenging opinions is a different matter. Civilized people are not required to pretend that they agree with one another. Life spent entirely among those of the same mind in everything would be boring. One could even argue against the value of opinions that have gone untested by counter-arguments.
But to be polite -- and for that matter, to be effective -- those with opposing views must be respectful and fair. That requires listening to the other's argument and conceding when convinced. And it means confining the discussion to the subject matter, eschewing personal criticism. As that is not your intention, you should avoid either any topics in contention or entertaining people of whom you so thoroughly disapprove.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My mother, who is 89, is having medical tests. Someone at work was bemoaning illness in general, and without thinking, I mentioned my worry over my mother's health (generally, with no gory details.)
Her reply left me literally speechless: "Well, your mother is really, really old and nobody lives forever, so you should just be getting used to the idea that she's going to pass."
I wish I'd had a reply, but fear it would have been anything but polite.
Really? Must one ready oneself for the unthinkable? I've lost one parent already and frankly can't fathom the inevitable, let alone "get used to it." As with tragedies in life, I feel I will cope when the thing that I fear is upon me.
What I do wish I had was a polite yet withering remark should someone ever say something so stunningly insensitive to me again.
GENTLE READER: Ah yes, a member of the Cold Comfort Squad. Such people also specialize in telling the bereaved that they must be relieved when people they love die.
You should not regret having been dumbfounded by a dumbfounding remark that does not deserve an answer. But if you want to be prepared for another such encounter, Miss Manners suggests, "Yes, it's true that we are all mortal. But some of us manage to form strong attachments nevertheless."
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, firstname.lastname@example.org; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)