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Miss Manners teaches the etiquette of aging

Just came across this article about Miss Manners, published a couple years ago, based on her book (which I just ordered for $1.40 as a kindle).

The article highlights four “fraught” situations and suggests a way to deal with them.

(1) Being offered a seat on a crowded bus. Here I agree with Miss Manners. This isn’t a big deal. Either say “Thank you” and take the seat, or say “No thank you” and remain standing. I usually am carrying heavy stuff on the bus, which would qualify me for a seat regardless of age. I also think teenage boys should give their seats to adults, period.

Once someone offered an arm to help me get across a snowy street. I accepted. I’ve been accepting help for snowy streets my whole life, so it’s not about being old. I was tempted to ask the stranger to help carry my backpack, too. And I said good-by in front of my gym.

(2) Saying, “You look great.” Here Miss Manners gets off to a good start. Susan Jacoby, in Never Say Die, makes a similar point. Some boomers (and others) believe aging is a crime. You’re not supposed to “let yourself go.” You’re supposed to insist that others view you as youthful.

But Miss Manners writes, “Society declines to see beauty in age. The consequence is the rarely successful and often laughable spectacle of people trying to pass themselves off as what they are not.”

The real villain here isn’t the aging boomers who are probably just trying to be themselves. When I run around in shorts and a t-shirt, I’m not trying to pass for young. I’m not thinking about age. I believe age should be irrelevant in 99% of social and economic situations. And I will wear shorts till they pour my cold, dead ashes into my urn.

Boomers pick up social cues. If everyone around you thinks age brings ugliness, you will too.

(3) Being called “Miss,” “Mrs,” “Mister,” or “Ma’am” by a younger person. Apparently some people prefer to be on a first-name basis with everyone because being addressed this way makes them feel old. Frankly, I’d be happy to be addressed as “Ms. Goodwin” or “Dr. Goodwin” when dealing with strangers, especially in medical settings. I always correct receptionists and techs who use my first name without permission, and I’ve been doing this since I was in my thirties.

I rather like “ma’am.” It’s the equivalent of “sir.” Women officers in the US military are called “ma’am.” So there.

(4) Pretending to be young. Here the article goes astray. We can’t do anything to stop someone from saying, “You’re young at heart.” Once a fortyish woman greeted me, after a long absence, with, “You look younger.” Could she be any more patronizing?

But Miss Manners blames the boomers. She sees these remarks as a response to boomers who want to use their first names: “You don’t want to be treated as grown-ups, so we will treat you as children.”

That’s ridiculous! People who say things like, “You’re young at heart” are suggesting that “young” is better than “old.” It’s patronizing and insulting. And it’s not a response to requests for first-naming strangers.

Try to imagine saying to an African-American, “You’re as [smart, beautiful, competent] as a white person.” In today’s environment, hopefully anyone reading this would realize that comment is racist, vicious, prejudiced, responsive to stereotypes, and totally unacceptable.

But it’s okay to say, “You’re as [smart, beautiful, competent] as a young person.”

What’s wrong with this picture?