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LET'S TALK ABOUT TALKING

"WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO TALK ABOUT-- the weather?"

Miss Manners hears this question often, delivered in a tone that is not at all nice. It is intended as an indictment of etiquette as being either so draconian as to repress all but the blandest conversation, or so wimpy as to be unable to tolerate discussion on any but the least controversial subjects.

She is thinking of barring these people from discussing the weather. With that contentious attitude, they are bound to make themselves socially impossible, hectoring everyone about the environment and pointing out that their listeners are stupid and immoral for, depending on their point of view, ruining it or ruinously protecting it.

But does not Miss Manners' reaction prove the accusations against etiquette? After all, she is questioning free speech in a free society, where airing conflicting opinions is not just a constitutional right, but the means by which we decide how to run the country! And not just shying away from talk about sex, religion and politics, but now -- the weather!

Hold on. This is Miss Manners pontificating, not the United States Supreme Court. She couldn't abridge free speech if she wanted to, and she doesn't want to. Nor does she want to restrict the exchange of ideas and opinions. On the contrary.

Far from squelching substantive discussion and debate, etiquette is what makes them possible. Admittedly, it does tell people when to keep their mouths shut and what they should not say. Is that what people mean by repressive?

Without such rules, there are no exchanges of ideas, only exchanges of set positions and insults. People who disagree rapidly move from talking over one another to shouting one another down, and from expressing their opinions on the matter at hand to expressing their opinions on the intelligence and morality of those who disagree with them.

It is only by adhering to strict etiquette that any controversy can truly be aired, whether it is at a legislature governed by Robert's Rules of Order, a courtroom governed by the judge's sense of decorum or a dinner party governed by social etiquette. The rules vary, but the idea is always to protect the assemblage's ability to accomplish its purpose.

It is true that at a dinner party, the purpose (aside from food, drink and those forlorn hopes of meeting someone new and interesting) is conversation. So why shouldn't people talk freely about things they feel strongly about?

Because Miss Manners doesn't trust them. She has seen them when they really get going on something they care deeply about. People who pooh-pooh the rule against discussing sex, religion and politics at the dinner table, under the impression that these areas are so overexposed that they have lost their former ability to inflame the passions, should recall the last time they heard people disagree about war, abortion, the death penalty, gay marriage and other such tepid topics.

Was there a true exchange of opinions? That needn't mean that someone ended up changing positions, only that they listened respectfully to someone else's point of view and debated the argument and not the goodwill of the person making it.

Occasionally, she concedes, people with manners have been known to participate in stimulating dinner conversation about hot topics -- but only if they have the self-control to wait until getting into the car before saying, "I had no idea those people were such morons."

Dressing for drinks

Dear Miss Manners: I'm a college student about to embark into the business world and I was wondering if you could please clear up the appropriate attire for cocktail parties before I make a faux pas.

I thought a cocktail dress fell above the knee, but my roommate insists it can be any length, as long as it is sans sequins or other decoration. Could you please advise?

Gentle Reader: Miss Manners doesn't suppose she could advise you to embark upon a career in which the first thing you need to know is something other than how to dress for drinks.

All right, then. In any decent line of work, people wear their business clothes to office parties, ladies adding whatever festive touches they can add in the ladies' room. You might want to be less decent when you go out socially, when cocktail dresses can be any length except floor length.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com.

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