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Miss Manners: Egoism isn’t principle

DEAR MISS MANNERS – Occasionally, the rules of etiquette conflict with my religious and moral convictions. When this happens, is there a way I can signal this to new acquaintances?

What I’m looking for is something along the lines of: “I recognize that my behavior in this instance isn’t polite, and may even be rude, but I’m committed to it for moral reasons. I apologize for any offense, but I’m not going to change this behavior. Should this be unacceptable to you, please feel free to sever our acquaintance now,” though preferably in condensed and less awkward form.

If some examples would be helpful, by far the most common is that I am committed to honesty and plain speaking, so I refuse to engage in the social dance of offering help expecting to be denied. Others include the social precedence of women qua women, and some of the titles and conventions used in addressing people (e.g., I’m not Mister Sandler, simply Oliver Sandler).

GENTLE READER – Etiquette does indeed make allowances for religious prohibitions and moral restrictions that conflict with the conventions. When faced with a conflicting expectation, people who do not, for example, drink or shake hands or eat certain foods or dance, need only say, “No, thank you,” or “I’m afraid I can’t” with as little explanation as possible.

But you are not talking about religion or morals, both of which – far from excusing you from offering help – expect such an offer to be genuine. Etiquette would require you to offer only sympathy if you had no intention of helping.

Nor is etiquette opposed to changing the conventional ladies-first system of precedence to a precedence system of deference based, for example, on age. This hasn’t taken effect yet; however, many people have abandoned the gender precedence without replacing it, resulting in a me-first approach that etiquette does not approve.

So your behavior will likely be taken less as rudeness than as a commonly increasing lapse of manners. To attempt to paint yourself as acting out of principle, announcing that others can like it or lump it, would only confirm that you are skipping the ordinary courtesies on purpose.

What worries Miss Manners more is that part about plain speaking. Everyone claims to prefer it – who would want to be subjected to lies and euphemisms? But unfortunately, the term “plain speaking” itself usually turns out to be a euphemism for insulting others.