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Miss Manners: Outrageous question requires quick retort

DEAR MISS MANNERS: My wife has been getting more active with our first-grade son’s PTO. At a committee meeting at a member’s house, the woman hosting the event, in making idle chit-chat, asked my wife how many kids we have.

Three, she answers, giving the ages: 13, 6 and 2. (We’re both 37, so admittedly, we were young when our oldest daughter was born.)

The woman, a well-heeled stay-at-home mother in our slightly bohemian neighborhood, pauses and then says, “May I ask a personal question? Are all three by the same man?”

Uh, yeah …

My wife relayed the story to me when she got home. At first we were both slightly amused, but as we’ve chewed on it for a day or so, we couldn’t help but be deeply offended by the question, no matter what the motivation for asking it may have been.

How do we let her know that we thought the question was rude without acting like confrontational jerks?

GENTLE READER: It is a bit late now for a comeback, Miss Manners is afraid. Any protest would indicate that you did not understand the question so outrageously rude as to be ridiculous, and the offender could say that she meant that perhaps there had been an earlier marriage.

At the time, however, Miss Manners would have been tempted to look at her wide-eyed and said: “I don’t know. How can one tell?”

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Is there a proper length of time to stay or a proper way to exit as the guest at a small dinner gathering (say, three to eight people)? We’ve attended seated (one course plus dessert) dinners that have gone on for nearly four hours – long after dessert is done. We sincerely appreciate the hospitality and are always gracious guests, but are we obligated to stay until the host excuses us?

Also, what about for invites for an early dinner, say, 5 p.m. on a Sunday? At 7:30 p.m., “It’s getting late” doesn’t seem appropriate, but are we obligated to spend the entire evening?

GENTLE READER: No, and standing up saying, “We’ve had such a lovely time, thank you for a wonderful evening” works at any hour.

It may help to remember that even the warmest hosts are not insulted if their guests do not stay forever.

Miss Manners must also remind hosts to do their part, not by dismissing their guests, but by getting them away from the table. The custom of having the hostess suggest that the ladies withdraw, ostensibly to leave the gentlemen to their port and ribald jokes, but really to allow the ladies to use the bathroom, was rightly abolished on the grounds of equality. Instead, the hosts must suggest that everyone return to the living room for coffee.

Personally, Miss Manners thinks it would have been more just to allow everyone a chance at the bathroom. At any rate, getting up allows them to down one round of coffee and go home.

Visit Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.


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