December 10, 2008

Miss Manners Is Always Right

Dear Miss Manners:

I have just started law school, where professionalism is part of the education. At this point, I would be grateful just for respect and common courtesy.

The trouble arises in one class where there are no assigned seats. One of my classmates saves a seat for her friend. The first time, I acquiesced. The second time, I put my hands on the chair before sitting down and said I was going to sit there, whereupon she snatched it away, saying I wasn't. The third time, when I announced my intention to sit next to her, she piled all of her possessions onto it. I am at a loss as to how to respond to such immature behavior.

As an aside, the first two times her friend could have just as easily sat on her other side. The friend suggested that we consult our professor, but he declined to become involved other than as a last resort.

What are you two doing in law school? Your idea of conflict resolution is tug o' war and run tattling to Teacher. Please remind Miss Manners never to hire either of you to represent her.

In the interest of relieving your understandably exasperated professor, she will explain briefly how civilized societies are regulated.

Rules, customs and laws are designed to make them run smoothly and, with any luck, justly and even gracefully. Etiquette governs the minor rules and customs, just as law governs the laws. However, in contrast to law, which has the power to fine or confine violators, etiquette requires voluntary compliance, and violating it incurs only disapproval and exclusion.

So why should anyone comply?

You and the other student might have done so to avoid disapproval: enmity toward each other, the possible annoyance of other students who heard you quarreling, and the likely irritation of your professor as he declined to become involved. For the sake of the profession you have both chosen, you should also adhere to the belief that trivial matters should be settled without recourse to the awful majesty of the law.

Instead, you both chose to pursue a questionable dispute over a chair, and to do so rudely. Saving a seat is usually countenanced, provided one does not try to save a large number of them, or to allow late arrivals who disrupt things. In any case, trying to do so is not an act of war.

The conflict could have been handled politely, with your asking, "Do you mind if I sit here?" and her saying, "I'm sorry, I promised to save this for my friend" -- and resolved in your favor by your arriving early for the next class and taking whatever seat you chose.

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