Picture this. The radio or TV "speaks" in the background; daughter engages Dad in conversation.
In the middle of a meaningful sentence, Dad raises his finger in the air, signaling her to stop instantly while he listens to sports scores. Daughter is told to hold the thought until after the report.Daughter, who is 11, challenges this behavior, claiming it is a demeaning interruption and poor manners. Dad says she's oversensitive and unreasonable, because her thought can be expressed any time and the scores can be heard only once a day.
I am certain that the finger method of stopping conversation is rude, but I wonder if even the sweetest, most humble "Excuse me - could you hold that thought for just a minute?" is also demeaning.
Is stopping a person in mid-sentence for anything but emergencies rude? My husband says you'd answer differently if it were war news rather than sports scores.
I think we should learn together the self-discipline of truly listening to one thing or person at a time, and stop dividing our attention.
GENTLE READER - Miss Manners is with you on the issue of divided attention, and she trusts that you have not allowed this daughter to do homework while listening to music, and have never, never, never permitted any canned entertainment during dinner.
But your husband may be surprised to hear that she has a point to make in his favor as well. And it's not just because she considers war news (which often qualifies for emergency status) more important than sports scores.
If the scores are given only once a day, both father and daughter should be aware when that is. It is no time to begin a conversation. If your daughter opened with "Is this a good time to talk to you?" she would be right to expect his full attention if he said "Yes." That means the television should be turned off.
DEAR MISS MANNERS - When my husband and I entertain guests from out of town, we try to think of activities that the guests might enjoy and to make preparations for meals according to their dietary needs. We often end up in a polite tug of war in which no one is willing to decide what we're going to do or what we're going to eat.
The phrases "Anything is fine" and "I don't care" become well-worn, and in the meantime, nothing happens.
Perhaps we are all hopelessly indecisive, but it is because we were all raised to be as unobtrusive as possible with the host or hostess. When I am the hostess, I usually end up making the decision, but I often feel uncomfortable in doing so.
GENTLE READER - What you describe is not so much a tug of war as a ritual, and you seem to have gotten stuck after correctly performing the opening step.
The polite answer to "What would you like to do (or eat)?" is, indeed, "Anything is fine." (Miss Manners does not care for the modernism "I don't care.")
But then the next question should be "Would you like to go to see the Monet exhibit or go bowling?" or "Would you prefer chicken or sweetbreads?"
These require a specific answer. If none is offered, you must prompt your guests by saying, "Either one is just as easy and enjoyable for us - please do us a favor and make the choice."
DEAR MISS MANNERS - At a party we had, with several round tables and chairs for our guests, one gentleman was in a family antique Windsor chair, leaning back on two of its legs. He is quite large.
I was across the room and would have had to maneuver to speak to him quietly or get his attention. I decided to let it go but ended up with a damaged chair. It didn't break, but the spindles are now quite weak.
I have had this happen before, when someone leaned back and rocked on a chair. I am saddened about my chair, but I didn't want to embarrass my guest.
Should one politely ask a guest not to lean back on a chair? If my children do it, I always ask them not to.
GENTLE READER - One difference between children and guests is that the latter may not be instructed in proper behavior.
However, a gracious host always worries about the welfare of her guests. You need only say, "Oh, dear, I'm afraid you might get hurt in that chair - let me get you one you'll be more comfortable in," as an excuse for substituting a nondescript but indestructible chair for your valuable but fragile one.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, Utah 84110. The quill shortage prevents Miss Manners from answering questions other than through this column.
1991, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.