Holiday Niceties, 'Miss Manners' Style

The holiday season can raise many questions of etiquette. Who better to answer listeners' queries on the subject than Judith Martin? She writes the syndicated column "Miss Manners."

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

You may be feeling better about your own eccentric uncle now, or maybe not. In any case, you're going to have to deal with him. To help you out, we've brought in a consultant, Miss Manners, aka Judith Martin. Her syndicated advice column has appeared since 1978 and she was recently awarded the National Humanities Medal for her contribution to civility.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. JUDITH MARTIN (Miss Manners): Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Miss Manners, we asked our listeners to e-mail us some questions. Let's start with one from a person who wants to be identified as `Over the River and Through the Pigpen to Grandmother's House We Go.' We assume this is a woman. She writes that she's about to take her children to visit her parents for the Christmas break. She says her parents' house is warm and inviting in the common areas but, she writes, `The room where we're sleeping is dusty, musty, moldy and covered wall-to-wall in clutter.' She wants to know if she should risk offending her mother by offering to clean up or just put up with it.

Ms. MARTIN: Well, the good part about this is she probably has all the immunities to anything that's there because she grew up in this house. And you don't offend your mother by cleaning up your room. Big news to children.

ELLIOTT: We have a letter also from a gay listener. She writes that her fiancee's mother refuses to meet her because she does not accept what she calls the, quote, "gay lifestyle." She wants to know if she and her partner can send her partner's mother a Christmas card signed by both of them. Or, she asks, `Should the card be signed by my fiancee only so that her mother can go on pretending that I do not exist?'

Ms. MARTIN: There's a certain element there of pretending the mother doesn't exist, if she only sends her a Christmas card with a signature. How about a nice letter that is signed by the daughter but says, `I do hope you will at some point to consent to meet my fiancee. She means a great deal to me and you do, too, and I would like both of you to be friends.'

ELLIOTT: Is this the right season to sort of confront these kinds of issues with your family?

Ms. MARTIN: The word `confront' keeps coming up. This is supposed to be celebrations. Those confrontations generally go back to things that have been going on for years, and the reason people do it at the holidays is because that's the only time they can't avoid their relatives. But if it wasn't solved over the years, it's not going to be solved now, but it is going to ruin the holiday.

ELLIOTT: We had a common dilemma that came up among some listeners. Let's give you the example this one listener gave us. Julia asks for advice in deciding which relatives to spend the holidays with. She wants to spend time with her own siblings but fears that might offend her husband's family. I bet you get this question all the time.

Ms. MARTIN: Yes. And it's called marriage, compromise, sharing, all of these things. There's no formula. Suppose I said, `Oh, yes, you're supposed to spend time with this and not with that,' that would be ridiculous. In a family situation, you figure it out, who--how can we share so that we can see them both? Do we alternate? Who lives nearby? Who do we have to travel to see? And you try to see everybody. But some--this person is got a slight marital problem in that it's his family against my family. You're married. They're all related.

ELLIOTT: Miss Manners, we can't let you go without asking, what is the most important holiday etiquette lesson you've learned over the years?

Ms. MARTIN: That I've learned? I teach. I don't learn. I learned them long ago. I teach them. And the one that I am trying to teach is there is no way to make blatant greed polite. The gift registry thing is never a good idea and has gotten hideous in that people are constantly telling other people to buy them things: `Give me this,' the trading of shopping lists, `I want this,' and `This wasn't what I asked for and you take it back and get me something better' and `I prefer cash' or--all of that stuff is just rude, rude, rude and it makes present exchanging meaningless, the whole custom meaningless. `Why don't you do your own shopping? You know what you want. I'll do my shopping. Why are we exchanging things?' Because there's supposed to be a little thoughtfulness in there. And greed has become so blatantly expressed that it has made the whole exercise pointless. So I keep trying to teach that.

ELLIOTT: Judith Martin writes the syndicated Miss Manners column and is the author of "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated."

Thank you.

Ms. MARTIN: It was delight to be here.

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