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Miss Manners: Napkins are not supposed to be bibs

Mon., March 4, 2013

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I’ve been eating out for more than half a century and can’t recall a single occasion when my lap napkin prevented a spill onto my pants. All it ever did was fall on the floor.

From your position of prominence, could you not make a plea for rationality? So many times a napkin could have saved me from getting spaghetti, wine or grease on my shirt front.

Shouldn’t manners make sense instead of being a stupid formality that prevents you from embarrassing yourself?

GENTLE READER: Rationality in etiquette? Are you out of your mind?

Well, no, Miss Manners admits that there is some, although not nearly as much as people think. The reasons tend to be invented retroactively to justify long-standing customs. And if etiquette had been arrived at through rational thought, thinking people in all cultures, at all periods of history, would behave alike (presuming they were polite).

What we are really dealing with is folk custom, and eating rituals are among the most basic of them, as any anthropologist can tell you. So it is all the more strange that many Americans, not just you, have not progressed beyond the bib stage. (The napkin is not intended to protect the lap from falling food, but to be available when needed to blot the mouth.) Miss Manners supposes it has to do with the demise of the nightly family meal.

You are suggesting that we give up and admit that we are incapable of getting food into our mouths without getting it all over ourselves. With all due sympathy to your plight, Miss Manners is unwilling to make that concession – and to lose the company of people whose appetites are adversely affected by looking at your food stains.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: What is the rule of thumb with men’s suit coats that have the maker’s cloth tag tacked on the sleeve of a coat? Keep it on or take it off?

GENTLE READER: Is the gentleman merely modeling the suit, with hopes of reselling it? If not, Miss Manners cannot imagine why he would display the manufacturer’s name on his sleeve.

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