Horrified? Insulted? Relax, Advises Judith Martin, Good Manners Are the Best Revenge

updated 08/09/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/09/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Life may be a comedy of manners, but few people really find anything funny about lack of couth. Except, that is, for the delighted readers of the archly witty etiquette columns signed "Miss Manners," which are syndicated in 75 newspapers and now have been collected in a book, Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (Atheneum, $19.95). Described as a cross between Jane Austen and Erma Bombeck, the real Miss Manners is writer Judith Martin, 43, also a weekend film and drama reviewer for the Washington Post, where she has worked for 23 years. In 1968 she made news by disregarding press restrictions while covering Julie Nixon's wedding reception. "It was perfectly good manners in that business situation," declares Martin, who nonetheless was subsequently banned from Tricia Nixon's nuptials. The daughter of a U.N. economist and a schoolteacher, Martin graduated from Wellesley College in 1959 with a B.A. in English. She lives graciously in Washington, D.C. with her husband, Robert, a scientist in biochemical genetics, and their children: Nicholas, 16, and Jacobina, 11. Martin raised her eyebrows over modern faux pas with PEOPLE'S Mary Vespa.

Isn't etiquette outdated?

It is like language or clothing; you can't do without it. The alternative is chaos and rudeness, which is pretty nearly what we are achieving now. The Me Generation set manners back 20 years. Its credo—"I come first, and how I feel and what I want is more important than anything else"—is absolutely the opposite of good manners. I don't think the assertive-ness and self-expression were as much fun as they were cracked up to be. So the alternative—politeness—suddenly sounds very attractive to a lot of people.

How does one deal with a rude person?

Politely. I don't believe in answering rudeness with rudeness under any circumstances.

How is that accomplished?

With the icy stare or weak smile. Facile expressions are wonderful ways of politely conveying that you cannot believe that this person has just behaved a certain way. I do not recommend the snappy comeback and put-down. I refuse to traffic in that.

Is it impolite to correct others?

It is the rudest thing possible. We are all in charge of our own behavior, but we are not responsible for our friends or even a spouse. One of the worst things you can do in a marriage is be embarrassed on behalf of the other person or try to improve a partner's behavior. Even if it be proven that the mistakes of others come from gross ignorance or from maliciousness, it is not the place of anyone except God or their mothers to bring this to their attention.

How should single or divorced parents handle children when inviting lovers to stay overnight?

With as little explanation as possible. Parents are entitled to some degree of privacy from their children. Depending on the age of the child, I would say, "You have overnight guests; I do, too." I certainly would not discuss the sexual aspects of it with the children. The last thing I would do is throw it open for judgment and discussion.

But what should a parent do if an unmarried son or daughter wishes to invite a lover overnight?

If the parents don't care, they just put them up as a couple. If they don't want to condone sleeping together, they should put their child in his room and the girlfriend in another room or on the sofa. Then they should go into their room, shut the door and turn on the radio. If the lovers should happen to get lost on the way back from the bathroom in the middle of the night and stumble into the wrong room, that is not the parents' fault. They have not condoned a thing.

What rules of behavior should parents follow in disciplining children?

You cannot teach manners unless you follow them yourself. You don't discipline children by being rude to them. A classic example of committing the fault you are trying to disallow would be screaming at a child to be quiet. And you should not discipline a child in front of other people.

For weddings, births and other formal occasions, when should written rather than printed announcements be sent?

People could save a lot of money if they knew how incorrect many forms of engraved announcements are. For instance, it is incorrect to send one when a baby is born. You just have to write a line saying, "We have a little girl, and her name is..." If one has a very large event, one has the invitations engraved. But it is never improper to do them by hand.

Is it ever proper to send printed thank-you cards?

No. Never.

At a formal dinner, what can you do if you use the wrong fork?

Lick it clean and slip it back on the tablecloth while no one is looking. The difference between manners and morals is that, with manners, if there are no witnesses, it doesn't count.

How should you act during the beginning stages of courtship?

With great reserve. Cheerful friendliness, along with the vaguest of looks that suggests one's feelings could grow, is the standard at which to aim. Uncertainty and ambiguity are as exciting in courtship as they are tedious in marriage. Pushy tactics are self-defeating. The real skill in courtship is to be able to play just slightly more slowly than one's partner.

Is all fair in love?

What do you mean "all"? Romance can be very stressful, but I do not think that even the most violent throes of love are any excuse for violating basic human decency. You don't open other people's mail; you don't call someone in the middle of the night, unless you have reason to believe he will be thrilled; you do not go through people's drawers for evidence.

How should a person who has been rejected by a lover or spouse behave?

With terrific dignity. Lashing out in anger, among other things, is least effective. If you want to get even, pretend you haven't noticed. You want him to think it really didn't make any difference to you. Be charming, polite and nice. No matter how eager he was to get rid of you, when he sees you don't seem to care, he'll go mad.

Why do you encourage readers to practice false cheer?

Because if there is one thing I can't stand, it's honest depression, honest whininess. Depression has become a national pastime. False cheer seems to me a much more socially acceptable front to put on than wearing your feelings on your sleeve.

Is it rude not to get in touch the next day with a person you hardly know but have slept with?

It seems to me if the one-night stand has any advantage, it is that no one has to call the next day because it only lasts one night. If you really want to be courted, perhaps your chances would be better if you didn't pick up strangers in bars.

How might one apologize for passing on a venereal disease?

Send flowers and a note. It's not a nice thing to do, is it?

Is squeamishness a good enough reason not to visit a sick friend?

It's a horrible excuse. This is a prime example of where etiquette is not being natural. It is perfectly natural to be frightened, disgusted and revolted. But you have a sacred duty as a human being to treat that person as you have always done. You ignore your squeamishness about illness, you overcome it.

What is the proper way to convey sympathy to a surviving relative?

You pay a visit. The usual custom is to bring food. I often take a bottle of port. If you can't go to the funeral, you write a letter. The minimum the note says is, "I am so sorry about your tragic loss." If you can, say something kind about the deceased. What you do not do is philosophize, "Oh, well, it's a good thing his suffering has ended." Grief is a rather profound process. You can't just blow it away offering easy comfort. That's insulting.

What if the deceased is someone you did not particularly care for?

Press the relative's hand. Look meaningfully into the eyes—this is done by raising the eyebrows from the nose bridge. Arrange the lips in a weight-of-the-world smile by raising the central part of the closed mouth at the same time as the corners are slightly raised. No one will ever guess.

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