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Dear Miss Manners: A friend allows her 11-year-old daughter to bring a book to read when the family gathers at a restaurant. Obviously the parent feels this is mannerly, but we find it disrespectful and rude. Please give us your viewpoints.

Gentle Reader: Doesn't this poor child have a cell phone?

That is the current instrument of choice when one wants to show guests that they are so boring that one must ignore them and supply one's own entertainment. If the parents are under the impression that to do so with a book is any less insulting than to do so with a telephone, Miss Manners assures them that they are mistaken.

Guests pressed into service

Dear Miss Manners: At a dinner party a friend attended, there were about 50 guests and various round tables with place cards and numbers at each place setting. At the beginning of the meal, the hostess explained her rules:

Everyone who had a number with a certain digit would be responsible for clearing the table after the first course and carrying out the second course. The second course had another number assigned to it and the lucky people with this number would be responsible for clearing off the second course and carrying out the third -- and so on, throughout the dinner.

My friend was aghast, and wanted to know if you had ever heard of this extraordinary custom. The hostess is a wealthy woman and had two paid helpers in the kitchen. Does she need therapy or a book on manners?

Gentle Reader: She needs to be taught fair labor practices.

To suggest to friends that you all get together and have dinner, sharing the work, is fair -- as long as you don't think of it as your giving a dinner party. To accept offers of help from guests is fair if you don't overdo it.

But to invite people to dinner and then conscript them as servers is not. Miss Manners suggest that this lady's putative guests enlighten themselves by talking over the job situation with those two employees in the kitchen. She has a hunch these people do not work merely for food.

Change the subject

Dear Miss Manners: As the captain of a dinner party, how do I avoid ramming an iceberg when one of my guests suddenly startles everyone by stating racist opinions? Naturally, I would prefer as few casualties as possible. (Well, maybe one.)

Gentle Reader: Miss Manners is afraid that it is the obligation of such a captain to provide life preservers for all, regardless of whether he thinks them worthy to survive.

In this case, the life preserver to be tossed is: "I don't think you realize how that sounds. I can't imagine that you really believe that, but in any case, let's talk about something else."

If the offending guest does not grab this and paddle madly back to safety, you may firmly move the ship on in another direction.

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