DEAR MISS MANNERS: One's bank account, knowledge of formal social rules and ability to follow table etiquette are not necessarily synonymous with true graciousness, consideration and courtesy. In fact, they may be covering up one's insincerity and disdain for others. I find it unfair that the well-dressed and seemingly more refined are often credited with being more "appropriate" in society than those who are unpretentious and casual.
The backstory is that when my sister and I were children, one aunt would take us into the city for dinner and a play, introducing us to the more refined things in life. It was very enjoyable at the time. We considered her lessons on how to present oneself in a dignified manner and follow respectable social mores invaluable. She was quick to point out social gaffes and inappropriate dress and demeanor, thus teaching us how to perform in social situations.
Some years later, after we were grown -- and after having slowly grown apart from this aunt, as well as from another aunt and cousin -- my sister decided to invite them over to her home for dinner. It was a small gathering. They arrived two hours early, taking my sister off guard, but she said nothing.
During the course of small talk, while waiting for the meal to finish cooking, they commented on a liqueur bottle perched on a shelf. My sister enthusiastically offered them a sip and poured the servings into appropriate liqueur glasses. While sipping the liqueur, one aunt, frowning seriously, commented that this beverage really should not have been offered until AFTER dinner. She whispered this to our cousin and other aunt, but I overheard her quite clearly.
Later, the subject of a famous family from the Italian Renaissance came up. I unknowingly mispronounced the surname of this family, and was sternly corrected by one aunt.
When dinner was being served, my cousin mentioned that she was quite scared to drive through our town as she thought she was being "followed by gang members," and that some people she knows (not her, mind you) thought that where we live is a "ghetto." Our cousin also commented on how "comfy and lived-in" the home is, and how charming she found the mismatched furniture.
Who is more guilty of a rude, offensive social gaffe? The one serving guests an after-dinner drink before dinner, or the ones arriving two hours early, correcting another guest's grammar and insulting the host's home and neighborhood?
GENTLE READER: It would be difficult for anyone with normal powers of observation to believe that there is a link between having money and behaving well. So let's not start class warfare here.
Besides, they are your own relatives. And while they are no longer exemplars of good manners, they are used to thinking of you as a child in need of instruction. If you cannot bring yourself to find this amusing, Miss Manners suggests gently reminding them that you are now grown up and responsible for your own behavior.
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, email@example.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)