THE POPULAR BELIEF that one cannot practice both etiquette and
sex has always puzzled Miss Manners. While it is recognized that
both have inspired strong feelings, the thought seems to be that
one cancels out the other.
The Victorians' enthusiasm for etiquette is generally excused
because they were born before sex was invented, and what else was
there to do? It is hard for modern people to imagine that one could
do something in private and not talk about it on television.
But it turns out that there are no exemptions from the fact
that social activity - even between two people, one of whom, at
least, has some predilection for the other - does not function well
without etiquette. In both work and social settings, the same
people who discarded all those pesky etiquette rules are busily
devising one rule after another to regulate behavior between the
But first they go and misrepresent what proper etiquette is.
The idea that the present climate is a bewildering change, because
pouncing on ladies used to be an officially approved sport, is a
nasty one, and not even true.
Etiquette has always hissed villains who tie ladies to the
railroad tracks, foreclose their mortgages, or give them poor job
ratings if they do not surrender their virtue, and has snubbed
suitors who press their suits, so to speak, with force. Miss
Manners is only too happy to hand these people over to the law,
which should have been after them long ago. Etiquette's weapon of
disapproval is not strong enough to discourage outright scoundrels.
Proper workplace manners (as opposed to the phony social
manners now common at employee birthday parties and showers) do
not include any recognition of gender at all, even that couched in
gallantry. Neither "Ladies first" nor "Ladies get the coffee" can
be assumed. Precedence there, as well as the assignment of tasks
and salaries, is supposed to be by rank.
Miss Manners is therefore nonplused at the definition of sexual
harassment as: unwelcome sexual attention on the job.
What, pray, is welcome sexual attention on the job? It may be
all very well for the two people concerned, but how welcome is it
to those paying for their time, expecting service or having to
cover for them?
The problem of sexual harassment would not exist if that
counter-intuitive etiquette rule about ignoring gender were
And to those who add that the world would soon cease to exist,
as no one has a chance to meet romantic partners except on the job,
she admits one exception. An invitation to socialize after work is
allowed, provided it is unaccompanied by coercion or the
insinuation that it is part of the job, and that no is taken for a
Basic etiquette training starts with yet another
counter-intuitive idea, which is that other people's feelings have
to be observed and respected.
By the time people are old enough to seek romance, they are
supposed to have had enough practice in reading the social
signaling system to understand whether they are being encouraged or
rejected. But a society without such training cannot be trusted
Etiquette has also long known how to deal with the troublesome
matter of approving or disapproving of people's romantic partners,
whether individually or by gender. This dictate, which vastly
predates "Don't ask, don't tell," but is more sophisticated, is:
"Just don't scare the horses in the streets."
There is one time that people come to Miss Manners for an
etiquette solution to what we shall loosely call courtship
problems. That is when they want to know how politely to ask a
stranger with whom they want to be intimate if that person can be
Having done away with the tedium of waiting to be properly
introduced to eligible people, and the discomfort of enduring
candidates put forward by their own friends and relations,
unattached people have now taken to hawking themselves through