THE idea of interviewing Miss Manners made me a little nervous, as reporters are seldom known for their tact.
Would she scrutinize my appearance? Refuse to answer questions she thought inappropriate? Wait for me to commit, heaven forbid, a faux pas?
If anyone could pass this social litmus test with the etiquette guru, author, lecturer, and popular syndicated columnist - whose real name is Judith Martin - it should be me.
While I was growing up, my mother had put a premium on such proprieties as standing when an adult approached, and responding "Yes" instead of "Yeah" to a query. "Perspiration," not "sweat," was the moisture that appeared on my brow.
On the day of the appointed meeting with Miss Manners, I took special care with the way I looked, but my painted nails were chipping. Not to worry, I'd have a chance to rush home and remove the polish.
But as it turned out, I did not have time before our one-on-one at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University here. And Miss Manners turned out to be very approachable after all, not to mention extremely bright and witty. And showing impeccable decorum herself, she did not give any inkling that she might be examining my own manners.
In fact, she made light of such thoughts.
"People always say they're nervous to meet me," she said, sitting very straight on the edge of a black leather love seat it would be tempting to slump back on. Dressed in an attractive gray wool suit and red silk blouse, hair pinned on the back of her head, she pursued this idea.
"They think I'll look at how they behave. Everyone always makes the same joke. It's like being a meter maid."
Later, in an address to graduate students of international relations at the Fletcher School, she added, "Miss Manners admits that her smile has grown very weak indeed when people say, `Oh, I guess I'd better watch myself or you'll catch me doing something wrong,' as if she were in the habit of giving out traffic tickets for lunch-table violations."
"I asked in one of my columns if there's one thing people always say to you in your profession," she told me. A policeman responded that when he goes to parties, he is greeted with the chorus: "OK, the cops are here!" A math teacher wrote that new acquaintances love to confront him with: "I hate math."
Miss Manners also elaborated on this theme before the students. Reading from her 1989 book, "Miss Manners' Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millenium," she went on: "Some of the deadliest conversations [I know] follow the question, `What do you do?' "
Generally, there are four kinds of retorts made when an answer is given, she explained during her talk: a request for free labor (to a doctor, for example); complaints (vacuum-cleaner salesman); talk designed to find out how one is doing in his or her career (writer - "Haven't you finished that book yet?"); and the smart remark (psychiatrist - "Guess who at this party is not normal?").
Though Miss Manners spent a large part of her speech discussing etiquette's partnership with law in diplomacy and in maintaining social order, it was her recollections of assignments covering ambassadorial parties for The Washington Post that kept her standing-room-only crowd of about 300 thoroughly amused - as well as the clever solutions to handling tricky social situations she offered in response to audience questions. Such resourcefulness is no doubt what keeps the "Gentle Reader" of her newspaper co lumn eagerly coming back for more each week.
"There were people who'd go to these embassy parties because they liked that [country's] cuisine. I called them `The Little Friends of Whatever Country,' " she quipped, adding that she called the whirl of parties she had to attend "the garbage run," for the unsavory hors d'oeuvres they served.
What do you do when you are the only woman in a room of military men and one tells an off-color joke? she was asked by one earnest student. "Etiquette does not mean being a victim," Miss Manners replied. She recommended giving the person telling the joke a sort of half-smile, drop-dead frozen look - a piece of advice which she demonstrated and peppered with humor that her listeners clearly enjoyed.
Miss Manners dispensed wisdom on many other subjects, as well, ranging from burping at the table, to avoiding endless chitchat in a receiving line, to dressing for success in the office. "Etiquette is not totally in the fashion business," she said.
On a more serious note, she explained to me, "Teaching etiquette is the kindest thing you can do for your child. It predates law and anything else in getting along with other people. You can't get away without etiquette any more than you can decide not to use language."
Americans, she told her student audience, "can be very proud of American manners, which are based on democracy and achievement, not birth.... When I go to Britain, they ask me how I can profess manners from a savage country. I tell the Brits that I'm there picking up tips at soccer games."
Many pupils at the Fletcher School - and elsewhere - would do well to pick up tips from Judith Martin.