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DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION

"You're not paying attention to me!"

As an accusation made by a parent, lover, teacher or boss, this used to be a serious charge. It led to the following pithy exchange:

"I was, too."

"Then what did I just say?"

"That I wasn't paying attention."

"No, before that."

"Before that?"

"Yes, before that."

"Don't you remember?"

"I'm asking if you do." But by this time, the accuser didn't remember exactly, either, and so the original discourse was resumed with the understanding that the wool-gatherer was on notice to look alert.

As this system worked fairly well, Miss Manners is astonished that parents, teachers, lovers and bosses now seem to be admitting defeat. At meetings and in classrooms, restrictions against using telephones and personal keyboard devices are being eased. Parents and lovers who used to express outrage at those who so much as diverted their gaze are more likely to say wearily, "Oh, go ahead," when told, "Let me just check my messages."

Why should their children, students, partners and employees pay attention when in possession of electronic alternatives? Those who are ignored may not put it that way, but they concede that modern distractions are more formidable than previous ones, which were limited to the solitary pursuits of doodling and daydreaming or the social ones of whispering and eye-rolling.

Miss Manners is puzzled at this acceptance of being snubbed to one's face. There is hardly a more direct insult than the demonstration that anything -- even a solitary game, or an unknown messenger -- would be better than having to endure listening to what is being said.

Acquiescence on the part of the speaker strikes her as evidence of a lack of confidence -- but of a sort that should not be confused with desirable humility. The society having accepted the idea that nothing is worthwhile unless it is entertaining, people are naturally worried about their ratings. Why wasn't the parental lecture or the classroom exercise so enthralling as to hold its audience spellbound?

The argument that banning electronic distractions is unenforceable speaks to the same misplaced insecurity. Relatives and others with mere personal ties have been imbued with the idea that nothing is more important than work, the neglect of which would have dire consequences, so the necessity of keeping up with work trumps any claims they may have. Meanwhile, bosses and teachers have been imbued with the idea that nothing is more important than family, who are likely to suffer dire consequences unless they are permitted to keep in constant touch.

Whether any of the slighted individuals is worth anyone's attention, Miss Manners cannot say.

But she can and does say that it is rude to ignore someone who is present in favor of someone who is not. Unless it is out of consideration to give that person a chance to check his or her own messages in the hope of finding more interesting company.

Preparing a response

Dear Miss Manners: On an RSVP there is a request to reply by a certain date. Under this line there is a line to write my name, but the line always starts with a preprinted "M." What is the purpose of this and how is it to be used? I would really appreciate an answer.

Gentle Reader: So would the hosts, to the extent that they have all but written it out for you. In a generous burst of erroneous formality, they have even provided the first letter of your presumed honorific, Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms. (there must not be any physicians, countesses or lieutenants on their list) or some combination thereof. In a less charitable mood, they threatened you with a deadline.

Personally, Miss Manners answers formal invitations correctly, with her own little hand. But all you have to do to use the card is to add what letters you like to the "M" and add your name.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners at MissManners@unitedmedia.com.

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