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It Matters If You’re Stirring Up Trouble

Judith Martin United Features Sy

Dear Miss Manners: At Thanksgiving dinner in my daughter’s home, her husband designated the seating, placing her at his right. He was at the end of the table in the host chair, and his brother-in-law was seated at the opposite end of the table in what I have always termed the hostess chair.

Before leaving, I remarked to him that I felt hurt that my daughter was being denigrated in front of my two grandsons, ages 20 and 18 years old. He said he learned this seating at their gourmet club.

Everyone of my age I have talked to goes by the old rule - the wife in the hostess chair and the head of the house in the host chair.

Am I correct to follow the old rule? My grandsons told me they would abide by your response.

Gentle Reader: Miss Manners gathers from your family’s good-natured response that you made these devastating accusations in a better spirit than your words would suggest. Otherwise, the tradition you practice sounds like an old one called Stirring Up Trouble.

The old rule you mention is one of several. The really old tradition, you will recall from medieval tapestries, has the hosts sitting next to each other facing the company. In the early part of this century, the fastidious thought it better to have the hosts sit opposite each other in the center of the table, rather than the ends.

But while it is possible to quibble over which custom is best, there is none by which the position at the host’s right can be construed as insulting. On the contrary, that is the position of honor. If you really wanted to stir up trouble, you’d be asking why you, as the senior lady in the family, were not seated there.

Dear Miss Manners: When my friend and I have occasion to chat with hairdressers, dental hygienists, people who run the coffee bar, the newspaper stand and so forth, we try to be kind and upbeat, but we don’t volunteer personal information about ourselves or ask nosy questions about their lives. These people, however helpful and charming, are not friends.

She and I must be doing something wrong, though, because we are met with such open-armed responses from people with whom we have these casual contacts that we don’t know what to do. I’m asked intimate questions about my health and given unsolicited advice about my appearance. She’s bitterly reproached if she fails, for a few days, to show up at the shop where she usually buys morning coffee.

She actually had phone calls at home from a doctor’s receptionist who looked in the files and got access to her number. If I offer my accountant’s secretary a bagel from a bag I’m carrying, she leaps across the desk to hug and kiss me.

We’re repelled by these verbal and physical assaults and hope we don’t somehow invite them.

Our hearts break for these people, who must be used to horrible treatment from the public at large (and perhaps their employers), but hasn’t this touchy-feely thing gotten out of hand? Can you please suggest a fix? Not everything in life can be done by mail-order.

Gentle Reader: Yes, the touchy-feely thing has gotten out of hand. So has the misguided notion of “friendly service,” which has replaced cheerful professionalism with the fake show of instant friendship, and intimate friendship at that.

It is a delicate matter for a polite person to rebuff indelicate people who are not aware they are being intrusive. The point you want to make is that you wish to be treated more formally; how they behave to others is out of your jurisdiction.

Nosy questions should be answered with only a silent smile, and unsolicited advice with a colder smile. Unauthorized touching is best answered with a scream of surprise - this merely indicates it was startling, but it discourages its being done again.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Judith Martin United Features Syndicate

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