The likelihood of emergencies seems to have increased alarmingly, judging from the number of people who cannot be temporarily parted from their cellphones or who excuse themselves from commitments. Perhaps it is time to establish a definition.
These occurrences are not, as a rule, emergencies:
▪ You left your lunch in the refrigerator at home.
▪ You forgot to record your favorite television show.
▪ You cannot find your car keys.
Before you rush to inform Miss Manners that you are diabetic and celiac, so that lunch would have kept you out of the emergency room; that the television show is the only thing that gets you through a stressful week without a breakdown; or that without your car keys, your toddler will be stranded at his after-school program, allow her to explain.
If the dietary and child care problems apply literally to your situation, you have Miss Manners’ sympathy, and she will pause while you resolve the situation. She did say that such things are not “as a rule” emergencies. Watching television never is.
If, however, those explanations are not literally true — if, rather, you will miss the show, are hungry or feel bad at being late to meet a friend — please bear with her.
Note that she uses the word “literal” literally. Not liking the lunch options in the cafeteria is literally not the same as their sending you into shock.
As someone who is susceptible to the charm of a good story, Miss Manners understands the human tendency to exaggerate. But the escalation of inconveniences into emergencies has both devalued the term and led us into avoidable incivility.
Miss Manners has never maintained that the classic example of yelling “Fire!” in a theater is rude when a fire literally exists. She does, however, insist that it is rude to yell because the popcorn is not ready and the trailers are going on too long.
Exceptions to normal behavior are made for emergencies. They are not made for annoyances, inconveniences or — and this is the distinction most often forgotten — for situations that, if left untended, might perhaps, in some distant future, become emergencies.
Making this distinction requires an exercise of judgment. If you see something falling out of a building in the general direction of a passer-by, etiquette does not require an emergency room admission before you can act. The person you pushed out of the way will not, she hopes, be cross with you if it turns out that the object went clear of the mark. Assuming, of course, you did not inadvertently push that person into harm’s way.
But please, let us agree to stop pushing and yelling over the daily vicissitudes of life.
A proper greeting for a shoplifter
DEAR MISS MANNERS: You’re going to think I am kidding, but I would like some pointers on the appropriate greeting for a casual acquaintance who has been arrested for shoplifting.
“Hello, how are you?” seemed a little awkward in the circumstances. To ignore an acquaintance also seems rude. What is your recommendation?
GENTLE READER: The words are right. Miss Manners only needs to help you with the emphasis. The idea is to show some feeling for the person, without seeming to probe about the crime or endorse it. Thus, “Hello, how ARE you?”
Judith Martin writes the Miss Manners column with help from her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, and her daughter, Jacobina Martin. Send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, MissManners.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.
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