Miss Manners comments on matters of style

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

"What you do inside your souls as you wrestle with your God is your business. Everything else is my business." So says Miss Manners, author of a thrice-weekly column to which readers may address etiquette questions, "in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper."

The author, daughter of a UN diplomat, is green-eyed, white-gloved Judith Martin, who rose up "out of my lawn chair" because "things are in such a bad state. The old system of giving women precedence has given way, but no new system has evolved."

This represents a backward step, says the Washington Post staff writer, robbing women of one of the few areas in which they had the advantage. "They are taking away symbols, but not changing realities," she says. "Courtesies should be the last things to go."

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Courtesy, or etiquette, as she sees it, defines "anything that happens between people." As she tells readers of her syndicated column, which now appears in about 80 newspapers across the country, "everything is a question of etiquette."

And while the brand of etiquette put forth in the column is heavily 19th century, with all its irrelevancies to modern times (Miss Manners does not job because she doesn't know what to do with her muff), her Sunday column runs an essay showing how courtesy can make even modern life "a nicer, calmer, more civilized place to live."

In an interview held recently at the Post, where she also serves as drama critic and features writer, Mr. Martin expanded on role of etiquette in the 20th century and the direction in which it is drifting.

"The old system of etiquette," she says, "is based on the medieval notion of the strong deferring to the weak -- a significant improvement over the even older version of the weak deferring to the strong." The system is being forced to change, she says, "because who wants to be thought of as weak? The disabled consider that an offensive label, as well they should, and women don't want it any more."

She sees a replacement emerging, where the young will learn to defer to the old. "That way, everyone gets a shot at deference -- there's a built-in revenge system." Some of this is already taking place, she claims. "I've seen young women giving up their seats on buses to elderly men. Of course, that can backfire, since the elderly men were raised on the other system of courtesy."

It is just such tension between the old and new systems that makes this "one of the easiest times in history to inadvertently offend someone. You used to really have to work at insults -- now they occur spontaneously," she says in horrified tones.

And it is this sort of tension that accounts for many of her hundred-plus weekly letters, from people wanting to know how to address letters and issue invitations without "mortally offending someone by not using the name they picked last week or acknowledging the liaison they are adhering to this week."

It is that last item that has Miss Manners a trifle miffed. "People want to lead unconventional lives, and yet have them recognized in the most conventional ways," she sniffs.

She cites the example of the woman who wrote in about accepting a one-night stand, and then complaining that "'he didn't call me afterward.' Well, you see, she was confusing her actions with old-fashioned courtship. You cannot graft etiquette onto this sort of relationship."

The sort of etiquette she advises is not grafted onto modern life, but blends , in, she thinks, with many present-day movements -- the trend toward traditionalism, for one, and feminism. "Feminism is based on respect for people , and nothing could be ruder than treating someone else as inferior," she says.

Applying the principles of feminism to etiquette benefits many of the old-fashioned male-female splits created in society, she says, by rendering them gender-neutral. For example, the gentlemen used to retire after dinner to the smoker's lounge, while the ladies went elsewhere; now, people are split into smokers and nonsmokers.

The same sort of divisions are occurring at political parties, she says, with those who hold key positions and want to talk politics steering toward each other, and those who want to just gossip drifting in a different direction. "Although, come to think of it, there's not much difference between the two," she says with a smile.

Ms. Martin has covered the White House party circuit off and on during her 23 years at the Post and is not impressed with the Reagans' efforts to raise the level of elegance. "Raging consumerism is not style," she confides, muttering about "jewels before lunch, and other atrocities."

But she approves any effort to lift the style, either at the White House or at home. "It's a matter of raising well- mannered children," she sighs, "and unfortunately, it has to be done the hard way, with constant reminders, and examples set."

Her own children, ages 10 and 13, are just starting to reap the benefits of such training. "When my son first started going to 'grownup' parties, he noticed that he was the only one there who was comfortable -- he knew what to do."

Being comfortable is just one of the side-effects of knowing etiquette, she claims. The biggest benefit is living in a world where people show consideration toward one another.

"People sometimes write and complain that etiquette is hypocrisy because 'it's a person's soul that matters,'" she smirks, "though behavior should reflect a beautiful soul. And in the case where the soul is not so beautiful, well, I'd appreciate if it they'd falsify the reflection a bit."

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