"Have something more to eat," the genial host urges the reluctant guest. "Have another drink.
"Because if you don't, I will badger and humiliate you until you'll wish you had."That last remark is not actually spoken. But Miss Manners can perceive an implied threat from a certain tone and persistence, and so can those who will find themselves the hapless victims of forced hospitality this holiday season.
Against their judgment and their desires, supposedly pampered guests will be consuming items they don't like, want or believe are good for them, in quantities not of their own choosing. They will do this, mistakenly, in the name of etiquette.
Actually, etiquette has no interest whatsoever in making people turn green and rush out of the room. On the contrary. But guests, as well as hosts, harbor the strange notion that force-feeding people more refreshment than they seem to want constitutes politeness, and that holding out against this campaign is rude.
In previous gentle little outbursts, Miss Manners has chastised the modern adult version of the food fuss. Those who go around telling their hosts not only their own likes and dislikes, which is bad enough, but their beliefs - that this or that food will damage either your body or your soul - don't even pretend to be polite. They believe that a good cause always justifies making everybody miserable. And perhaps this creates a desire to find a non-criminal way to stuff their cheeks so that they are unable to talk.
But Miss Manners staunchly defends the right of grown-up people to choose what they eat and drink and what they don't, and if they base their choices on health, moral or religious factors, rather than mere prejudices, all the better. It is no etiquette violation to be selective, as long as one doesn't make extra demands on one's host's patience, energy or dignity.
Exercising this right is not easy when the food pushers are at work. Their endless patter of coercion - "Oh, come on, one won't hurt you, I made this especially for you, it doesn't have any calories, you're too thin anyway, it's good for you, you're not going to make me eat leftovers tomorrow" - often succeeds in driving people to drink and chocolate.
What do these hosts have in mind? Do they really measure social success by intake? Do they believe that guests are terminally shy people who would starve to death for fear of seeming enthusiastic? Do they actually overestimate the amount of food that even hearty eaters could possibly consume?
Whatever the reason, Miss Manners asks them to cut it out. Hosts should, of course, be generous with their offerings. The now spreading idea that one can style oneself a host and demand that others cook and bring the food, or ask people out and then demand that they pay a share, is a travesty of the sacred institution of hospitality.
But politeness consists of offering food and drink without cajoling or embarrassing people into taking it. It is a nice point of etiquette that re-offerings never include a count: One does not say, "Oh, have another helping," but "Would you like some pie?" Such offers, if accepted, may be repeated as long as the pie and the guest hold out, but the wording is the same.
So is the wording of refusal. The phrase is "No, thank you," and no guest should have to defend his or her choice.
DEAR MISS MANNERS - For the last 30 years we have sent, as Christmas cards, a picture of both of us trimming the tree, making a wreath, etc. It has been fun, and the pictures are a collector's item for friends.
We are both over 70 now, and many friends have lost their spouses. Is it in bad taste to continue sending our "fun" cards?
GENTLE READER - It would be bad to stop. Miss Manners is afraid that your less fortunate friends would have only too vivid an idea of why family fun might suddenly stop.
She trusts that you are sending sensitive letters, not greeting cards, to the recently bereaved. She also trusts that friends who have resumed their normal, if saddened, lives are grateful, rather than envious, that you have been spared. She tends to trust a lot this time of year.
DEAR MISS MANNERS - Whenever I go into my supervisor's office, she seems perturbed because I wait for her to offer me a seat, even if my visit will be short. Is it no longer proper for one to wait until invited to sit when one is in another's territory, such as an office or home?
GENTLE READER - The answer to the question you have asked Miss Manners is that it is still proper to wait to be invited to sit down in someone else's territory. The answer to the question you have neglected to ask is that it has never been proper - or wise - to continue a practice that visibly annoys your supervisor.
DEAR MISS MANNERS - My son was terribly burned in an unfortunate experiment involving gasoline. Strangers from all over the area donated money to a trust fund established for him, and gave blood to aid his survival.
I have been given a list of all the donors. Thanking all of these warmhearted members of the community would make writing thank-yous for a party of 200 a piece of cake. Also the care of this child is physically demanding, as is the care of his siblings, who are just recovering from witnessing the tragedy.
Would it be incorrect to write a letter to the editor of the local paper to say thank you? Obviously we could not afford to take out an ad or to do anything requiring an expenditure. There will be 18 months of physical therapy before my son is free again to be a "regular guy."
P.S. A note to those who see a child in strange garments and braces: If you must stare at him, be brave enough to ask him what happened. He'd be glad to tell you. Simply being stared at is very painful to one who was just like you until a few months ago. Children ask, but adults are so rude.
GENTLE READER - Even Miss Manners, who is deaf to the pleas of brides and others who plead thank-you fatigue, admits that thanking a whole town individually is a formidable chore.
But although she does not object to the letter-to-the-editor approach, she would like to see it supplemented. It is no trivial thing to establish a trust fund for a non-relative, and it should not be dismissed in one letter.
Surely there are people among your benefactors who have asked what they can do to help. Letters along the lines of "Mrs. Rockfort has asked me to express her profoundest gratitude ..." would serve, if they note that the crisis care of your children prevents you from writing yourself.
As for your admonition to those who stare, it is not strong enough. Staring at anyone is rude. But so is expressing that curiosity with questions.
The annoyance may not be apparent so much while the tragedy is fresh, but Miss Manners assures you that it will be in the long run. Your child will soon tire of going through life constantly retelling this story.