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Miss Manners by Judith Martin, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Martin

Making the Most Polite Mess Possible

DEAR MISS MANNERS: How does one gracefully handle eating something that is over-sauced, over-dressed, or just plain messy?

Despite careful ordering and a concerted effort not to take too big of a bite, one still finds that a single napkin occasionally isn’t enough, especially where paper napkins are offered. I find myself on dates or out with friends with what seems like an enormous pile of ugly, soiled paper, and I never quite know what to do with it, or when enough is enough.

I usually try and offer a quick joke such as, “Wow, I guess they take ‘messy but good’ seriously here,” to indicate that I’m aware I have used a voluminous amount of napkins. Short of giving up and walking out soiled, or running to the washroom every five minutes, is there a better way to handle this?

GENTLE READER: It is striking to Miss Manners that many of her Gentle Readers’ food questions carry the implicit assumption that skipping a food will have dire consequences. In some cases it may, but often it does not.

She says this without any intention of belittling your question, which is perfectly valid, but to point out that your survival does not depend on ordering the ribs. At an informal dinner with friends, when they are making an equal mess, indulge, so long as you keep your dirty napkin pile as neat and compact as practical. On a first date or at a business meal, order the salad.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Should one place money inside when giving a gift of a wallet or purse?

GENTLE READER: No. Even if Miss Manners did not already object to cash gifts, she notes that it is preferable to make a present look new, rather than lived-in. And to avoid leaving the recipient with the fear that he has picked your pocket.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a widower, dating a woman who is also widowed, for the past year. Our relationship is casual for the time being, but may grow into something more down the road. We only see each other about twice a month because of distance and family obligations.

She has been invited to her grandniece’s wedding and asked if I would be her plus-one. Now, I have never met the bride or her family. Am I under any obligation, as a plus-one, to give a gift to the bride and groom?

GENTLE READER: Presents are not, strictly speaking, mandatory, but when they are given, the general custom is: one invitation, one gift. Your date’s present is therefore sufficient to cover you both, although you might wish to ascertain -- discreetly -- if her attachment to you is sufficiently strong to motivate her to append your name on the card.

This is best done indirectly, by telling the lady that, as you do not yet know the bride or bridegroom, you would like to contribute to her present, relying on her knowledge of what the recipients would appreciate.

(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website,; to her email,; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)