DEAR MISS MANNERS: At a celebration and everyone was having a happy time ... lots of smiles and good humor. I was in a lively conversation with another guest, and we were laughing over some quip or observation when she suddenly asked, with no warning, "How old are you?"
It was so unexpected that I think I probably just gave her a startled look and gasped, "What?" (or perhaps even "Huh?"). So the lady explained with a generous smile, "You seem so YOUNG."
Ouch! What a left-handed compliment! What she was actually implying was, "You look so OLD!"
What would be the best response to this exchange? I was too stunned to come up with an appropriate response. When I'm having fun, I assume that I look like "everyone else" at the gathering.
Should I have smiled wanly and said, "Thank you"? Or, a better idea, should I have returned the compliment by telling her, "And you seem so young too!"
In my own case, I do have an ideal response: "I was born on a date that will live in infamy," and leave it to the questioner to figure it out. I just want to be prepared if/when this happens again.
What would Miss Manners suggest? This would never happen to you, but it did to me, and it left me feeling disheartened.
GENTLE READER: It could easily happen to Miss Manners, as many people casually break the rule against asking the age of anyone past childhood. But there is no chance that it would make her feel disheartened. She knows her age and is neither flattered nor insulted to have people recognize or mistake it.
You are a victim of the silly, harmful and futile modern convention that it is embarrassing to grow old. Although your interlocutor violated the rule that age should not therefore be mentioned, her retreat shows that she was aware of it. That is why she reverted to the fiction of clumsily claiming that she was referring to your youthfulness.
Mind you, you need not tell your age. Your answer is acceptable, but you could also reply that you do not tell. (The standard coy reply is Oscar Wilde's "A woman who would tell one that would tell one anything.") Miss Manners is urging you only to not allow such remarks to upset you.