Why can't private life be organized on a businesslike basis? Miss Manners would have thought the answer to be: Because it's not a business. You can't fire the children, and you are not likely to make a profit from them. You wouldn't have hired them in the first place, if you had been aware of their skills and attitudes. That this does not discourage people from having children, Miss Manners understands. There is such a thing as Nature. Unfortunately, neither has it discouraged a great many people from approaching family and social life with the same techniques they apply to work. They compete with their spouses, they plot ways to entertain without incurring personal expense, they advertise for romance and they market what might otherwise be considered the sentimental occasions of their lives to extract cash and goods. If they can't fire their minor children, they keep giving them notice, and they sever connections with any other relative whom they deem unsatisfactory.
The results have not been encouraging. Private life is full of paradoxes that elude logic, not to mention business techniques. By letting it be known that you are avidly searching for romance, you render yourself unattractive. By requesting donations from friends, you stifle their generosity. By engaging in competition, you drive your spouse into the arms of competitors. When you fire relatives for poor performance, you suffer enormous financial losses.
True, there are areas of the household that do gain from business acumen. The family budget, for example. In organizing a household and keeping it supplied, a systematic approach works wonders. Miss Manners herself uses an inventory system (replacing household staples not when they are used up but when their replacement is used up) for which she understands the United States Navy also claims credit.
One can also contract out tasks that used to be performed at home. A household doesn't need to grow its own food; Miss Manners wouldn't dream of checking on whether it even cooked its own food, provided whatever is served makes a decent appearance on platters and plates. It can contract out any number of domestic chores, sometimes to astonishing new services, such as those that will nag the other services.
It is only when it comes to contracting out to commercial companies and professional counselors all the basic services that a family circle of relatives and intimate friends is supposed to supply--compassion, sympathy, companionship, advice-giving, emotional support, teaching morals and manners--that she becomes alarmed. When the personal aspects of family life are all supplied by outside professionals, the family is destroyed. Nor does it get its money's worth, no matter how esteemed and valuable these services may be. In family life, unlike in the business world, who does the job is even more important than how well it is done. Nepotism is a requirement.
Anyway, the premises on which family life are based would not be considered prudent in business. The family distributes its resources according to need, not merit, and values people without regard to how much money they make (which is why nonproductive children are given allowances). It considers pleasing people to be a better justification for the way things are done than logic or uniformity or speed. It puts extra work into caring for the helpless, instead of unloading them. It expects people to work free for the common good (which is why Miss Manners opposes offering the children money for chores).
All this is amazingly inefficient and not well focused on the bottom line. It is also the only way to live.
Getting Down to Business
DEAR MISS MANNERS--I know that in previous and more refined generations, my question would be unnecessary, but freedom to speak has taken a turn for the worse and I think other women of my generation (the Baby Boomers) and younger would find this an appropriate topic.
I am a single woman with a lively personality, educated, fun to be with, and with a pleasant physique. A number of times, I advertised myself in the personals columns of various publications as looking for a companion and husband. The ads are inviting and straightforward; they do not suggest I am looking for an affair. I have also responded to men's ads that seem to be age, interest, religion, etc., appropriate.
The problem is that in my initial conversation, on the telephone or when meeting a fellow in person, the man will sometimes say, "So how come you are not (or have ever been) married?" Many of these guys are divorced; perhaps they are envious or jealous of my freedom. My comeback is, "Well, that is a very personal question." There are reasons I've never been married but the reasons aren't important now, and the question is rude.
I am disappointed by this marriage question. Should I just rip up their letters and not go out with them? Or are they just having a lapse in proper etiquette?
GENTLE READER--The proper etiquette for what, exactly? You want these gentlemen to consider you as a marriage partner, but you don't want them to get personal?
Miss Manners acknowledges that proper etiquette prohibits strangers from asking such an intimate question. She believes it so very intimate a question that even your relatives should restrain themselves. About once a decade should be about right for your parents or grandparents to take you aside and ask you privately. Even then, you may point out how superfluous such probing is by replying politely, "When I have something to announce, you will be the first to hear it."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Miss Manners' Guide to Domestic Tranquility by Judith Martin. . Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.