Dear Miss Manners: Years ago, my wife and I agreed that we would not read at the table during meals, in what I thought was an attempt to eliminate a bad habit developed during our single lives.
So when my wife recently started reading at the table during meals, I objected. She asserted, I think accurately, that she can read and take part in conversation. Thus she reasons that it is not improper for her to read.
I, on the other hand, tend to get absorbed in what I am reading to the point where I frequently do not respond to comments addressed to me. Therefore, my wife asserts, it is not OK for me to read at the table. She can read; I can’t.
Actually, I don’t think this is about manners. I frequently do not respond to my wife’s comments when they are not in the form of a question or I do not have a ready response. My wife complains that when I do not say anything, she does not know if I have heard her.
I understand her point and try to do better, but I am not perfect. I think each failure adds to a heap of disappointments in a marriage that may have had more than its fair share of stress. A counselor’s office would be a better place to resolve this issue than in your column, but she won’t see a counselor and I am not yet prepared to threaten to end our marriage to get her to one.
As we are trying to teach our children good manners, I would appreciate your thoughts on reading at the table during meals.
Gentle Reader: Miss Manners does think this is about manners, which is to say that she considers the situation more serious, not less, than ordinary marital strain - even a large share of ordinary marital strain. So you have come to the right counselor.
First she will deal with the etiquette rules involved.
1. It is rude to read at the table when someone else is present, and being able to converse as well doesn’t make it any less rude. The insult consists of saying symbolically, “I’m bringing my own entertainment because I sure don’t expect much from you.”
2. It is rude to greet another person’s remarks with silence, even if no question has been asked. The insult consists of saying symbolically, “What you say is not interesting enough to warrant any acknowledgment.”
At this point, Miss Manners hastens to disabuse you of any notion that she has slyly led you to what a different sort of counselor would say right off - that the solution lies in better communication.
On the contrary. She knows perfectly well that there are times when the most recently purchased George Eliot novel has a great deal more to say than even the most beloved of husbands and that the most interesting wife in the world is, like everyone else over the course of a lifetime, bound to deliver a great many unremarkable remarks.
So communication, especially honest communication, would only compound the insults you are already exchanging by putting them on the table, so to speak.
What you need is politeness, which is to say the respectful pretense of interest in each other. Your wife should arrive at the table as if she expected you to be interesting, and you should respond to whatever she says with an encouraging noise, if only “Oh, really?” or “Hmmm.”
Miss Manners’ approach of dealing with the surface rather than whatever lurks beneath it will seem less eccentric if you think of how you want to teach manners to your children. As parents, you probably know that they love you, and yet you also know that they are often bored senseless by much of what both you and your wife wish to say to them.
If you allowed them to express the boredom, it will make the whole household unpleasant. And if they are not taught to feign interest in other people, no one else will want to establish a household with them.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Judith Martin United Features Syndicate
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