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Miss Manners: Using the Wrong Flatware Is Not the End of the World

Dear Miss Manners: I am looking for the correct answer to the following question: What happens if you are at a formal dinner and realize you are using the wrong piece of silverware for a given course?

Gentle Reader: You go on eating. Everyone else goes on eating and talking. Perhaps an alert server discreetly slips you a replacement. If not, you eat the next course with the utensil that you should have used for the previous one.

The only person upset by your problem is Miss Manners, and not because someone might confuse the flatware. That is a situation in which nobody gets hurt.

What bothers her is the suspicion that you were hoping to set Miss Manners up to declare that you would be scorned and drummed out of society — thus enabling you to carry on about how shallow ”society” and its rules are.

Dear Miss Manners: Next week we are hosting a fundraising gala for a charity whose founder is also a very prominent and successful businessman. There will be six people roasting him — all in good fun and humor.

As there will also be a brief program about the nonprofit organization, a silent auction, a live auction and a paddle auction in addition to the roast — what is the appropriate response of the person being roasted at the end of the evening? A few comments and a brief rebuttal? An extensive addressing of each roaster’s comments and a bit of one-upmanship? How long should his comments take?

Gentle Reader: Being roasted requires tenderness and submission to being chewed over. Ask any chicken or turkey.

However well intended, it is not always, Miss Manners acknowledges, an enviable situation. But it must be accepted with grace.

So no, your target should offer neither a rebuttal nor counterattacks on the roasters. The humor that is chiefly expected of him is to take it all in good-natured fashion. His first duty is to laugh when others do.

In acknowledging their efforts, the tack he should take is that they really have his number, and he is grateful for their putting up with him anyway. If he can do this with wit and brevity — your program hardly sounds brief — all the better.

Dear Miss Manners: What does it mean when a man gives you a single red rose?

Gentle Reader: If you are on television’s The Bachelor, Miss Manners understands it to mean that you are allowed to remain for another episode — or marry him, depending on ratings and where they are in the season.

In real life, it is a romantic gesture, the deeper significance of which can surely be explained by the man himself.

Dear Miss Manners: Is it impolite to ask to be in someone’s wedding party, or is it OK? And does it make any difference if it is a young girl/child who is a family member?

Situation: Wedding plans are all set. Four weeks before the wedding, the uncle of the bride contacts her, saying his young daughter would like to know if she could be a bridesmaid or flower girl.

The bride is now feeling awkward and doesn’t know how to respond. Bottom line is that she doesn’t want another flower girl or bridesmaid, but the question of etiquette is also in debate.

Gentle Reader: It is true that one should not volunteer to be a wedding attendant; one should wait to be asked. But you are talking about a little girl, the bride’s cousin, who is overexcited about the wedding. Don’t you find a bit of mitigating charm in that?

The uncle would have been better advised to tell his daughter that being a wedding guest is itself an honor, and to divert her attention to what she will wear, how much she will enjoy the wedding cake, and so on. If he felt close enough to confess her wish to the bride, he should have apologetically explained her enthusiasm and merely asked if there were some tiny task she could do.

Dear Miss Manners: It seems like every time I turn around I am getting an invite from a friend to attend an in-home sales party. I personally despise these parties. I think the merchandise is overpriced, the products are not that great, and I cringe when I get the invite from a friend because I feel obligated to attend and buy something.

I put these parties up there with going to the ob/gyn.

I know this is a way for people to earn extra income and that times are tough with the economy, but I keep getting invited to these parties, and frankly, I don’t want to get invited. Period.

How do I gently and kindly let people know that I appreciate the invite, and I think it’s great they are starting a business of their own and I value their friendship, but I do not want any part of these, and to not include me in the future? I am running out of excuses not to attend, and some people just do not take the hint!

Gentle Reader: No excuses are necessary. Miss Manners assures you that there is no kind and gentle way to tell people that you approve of their choices in general, but do not care to socialize with them.

“I’m so sorry that I’m not going to be able to make it,” is enough. To preserve the friendships, and incidentally to set a counter-example, you might invite them to visit you without having to bring their wallets.

Dear Miss Manners: I went out on a first date with a woman (I’m a woman too) with whom I had shared a lively and interesting email correspondence for several days. We connected on a dating website, where she had a funny and well-written online profile.

When I arrived at the restaurant, I discovered that she was quite tall and more masculine-looking than she had appeared in her pictures. It was apparent to me that she was transgendered.

However, it seemed quite impolite of me to ask, for instance, when she was talking about her childhood, “So, you were a boy then, right?”

I was in enough doubt that I just kept looking for clues, pro and con, as the conversation went on. She finally told me and expressed some incredulity that I didn’t know, as I had said a few things that implied the assumption that she was a girl since birth.

I think she was a bit offended, though I can’t imagine for what. I would think that would be the sort of thing you’d put in your profile. What should I have said?

Gentle Reader: “I would have considered it rude to make any assumptions.”

D ear Miss Manners: I enjoy the convenience of being able to access the Internet from my home. Lately, however, it seems that whenever I log on to look up a piece of information or dash off a quick note, friends or relatives who have placed me on their “buddy list” are alerted to my presence online and initiate instant-messaging conversations.

I find this unsettling, much as I would if these same friends or relatives received an alert when I picked up a book, turned on the television or pursued any other activity. If I ignore their instant messages, they will know I am online and choosing not to respond.

Is there any polite way to prevent these interruptions? Otherwise, how quickly may I end these conversations without being rude? These are people I would be happy to hear from by telephone or regular email, so I don’t wish to offend them.

Gentle Reader: It took a long time for the computer industry to realize that people who were wonders at inventing new gadgets were not necessarily equally adept at fielding customer calls or writing instruction manuals.

Miss Manners has noticed that the industry has yet to make the same realization with regard to electronic manners.

The “status update” that you refer to is an engineer’s solution to a manners problem — and not a good one. One imagines that homeowners who did not wish to receive callers faced a similar dilemma with the invention of the electric light, since throwing the switch alerted everyone on the block that they were home.

Some online systems now allow you to limit such broadcasting of your activities. But for ones that offer no such privacy, politeness does not require that you answer every call simply because you can.

Dear Miss Manners: What is your opinion of people who answer their cellphones when engaged in a conversation?

I understand there may be exceptions for emergencies, but otherwise it comes across to me as rude and makes me feel like second-best. It also breaks our connection — especially when they can’t remember what we were talking about when they end their cellphone talk.

I find it especially annoying when out on a date. Do you think I’m overreacting? What can I say so the other person might be understanding and cooperative rather than feeling put off?

Gentle Reader: Your goal is not to make your date be understanding, but to make her or him understand: Taking non-emergency calls while in company is rude.

Expressing interest in the call only condones the behavior, and even risks a rebuke for eavesdropping. And we know that correcting rudeness in others is itself rude.

Miss Manners instead recommends that you excuse yourself and leave the table, returning only after the call is complete. The timing is important — and also challenging, as your destination is the bathroom, not the bar. Upon your return, apologize for taking so long, but say that since he or she was on a call, you are sure you will be forgiven.

Miss Manners is written by Judith Martin, her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, and her daughter, Jacobina Martin. You are invited to email your etiquette questions from, if you promise to use the black or blue-black ink you’ll save by writing those thank you, condolence and congratulations letters you owe.