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WHEN TO LEAVE FATHER ALONE

"Children be quiet," a gentleman of Miss Manners' acquaintance used to say when his concentration was interrupted; "Papa is trying to write his name."

Such announcements do not inspire the awe among children that they once did, which explains why this gentleman didn't try it on his. He merely found it a useful warning to well-meaning adults who asked him to do something and started mentioning something else before he was finished doing it.

But what if Papa does have work to do at home, and does need the family to leave him in peace to accomplish it? And what if the helpful advice he used to offer Mama, all those years when she had the same problem ("It's just a matter of being organized" and "You must learn to be firm"), doesn't work?

Miss Manners realizes that Papa has been somewhat humbled since then. Mama no longer thinks it her duty to present him as a figure to be feared. Or if she does, he's not a daily presence in the household, anyway. He has been forced to admit that he is not the only person in the household who has important things to do. Not only does he find it dangerous to insinuate that his work takes precedence over Mama's, but he may be expected to defer to the children's schedules.

And should he be so vulgar as to mention his monetary contribution to the family, he runs the risk of hearing what some people half his age are making. All the same, Papa often does need to work at home nowadays, as everyone else has been doing all along. He may be subject to call, he may have extra work that doesn't fit into the schedule or he may work entirely from home. Setting etiquette rules would be a help to all.

The one that is always announced, "Don't interrupt unless it's an emergency," unfortunately creates more problems than it solves. "Interruption" is defined too loosely, so that the children can claim they weren't interrupting, they were just playing soccer upstairs. "Emergency" is defined too tightly (after an initial attempt to invoke it to describe an attack of boredom) as "only if someone is bleeding," and is therefore not invoked when the stove catches fire.

What urgently needs defining is "work" -- when it is being done, how much else can be done at the same time and, more importantly, when work is not done. Historically, mothers have defined professional work done at home as what they can fit in after attending to family and household duties, and fathers have defined family and household duties as what they can fit in when they have no professional work to do at home. That fathers may now be the ones to ask "How am I supposed to get anything done around here?" and mothers may be the ones to say "Since you're going to be home anyway, I know you won't mind. . ." doesn't justify either attitude.

Miss Manners does not presume to know what working hours or conditions may be necessary, and presumes these can be sensibly negotiated within the family. The etiquette rule needed is that both work and family life must be respected, so that neither one becomes, by definition, an interruption of the other.

A tip of the cap

Dear Miss Manners: Can you tell me if it is rude to compliment someone's manners? I was approached by a young man, who removed his hat and kept it off while speaking to me, then thanked me for my assistance and returned the hat to his head. I wanted to say something (he was with a young lady, unknown relationship) but felt that calling attention to his manners might somehow be construed as inappropriate. I've been in public service for 16 years and, while I've experienced this with older gentlemen, it is the first young, well-mannered gentleman I've encountered.

Gentle Reader: Really? The first? Are things as bad as all that? For heaven's sake, don't tell him. He might decide that he must be the one who is wrong.

But you do want to encourage such behavior, and yes, it can be rude to compliment someone's manners when the implication is that you are surprised they have any.

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