It's her view that American society is coming to the end of a generation-long experiment that started in the '60s when the baby-boomers decided just to chuck existing rules of behavior and be themselves.
"This is what I call the Jean Jacques Rousseau School of Etiquette," Miss Manners relates. "The problem being that in our natural state we're not all that livable."
In addition, Martin sees our current social situation complicated by two main factors: technology--the fax machine and answering machines weren't ubiquitous a decade ago--and sex. Not only are sexually transmitted diseases a topic that must be addressed these days, but so is sexual etiquette in the workplace.
"The very simple rule that takes care of most of these problems--that gender is simply not relevant in the workplace--is a very difficult concept to get across. Because once you realize that, then the questions of who goes through the door first and who pays for lunch are very easily settled by rank and position."
OK, OK, already. I'm beginning to feel like I've spent the last month locked in a finishing school. Luckily, that King of the Quip, P. J. O'Rourke, has come to my rescue with his "Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People," published in paperback this spring.
Written with enough churlishness to make "The War of the Roses" look like a lovefest, this guide contains such ungentlemanly advice as how to falsify a family tree and how to commit polite crime. And among the many '90s questions answered is my personal favorite: how many pierced earrings to wear?
"Start with the number two and add one earring for each of the following phrases that accurately describes your life: bulimia, drug dependency, sexual promiscuity, from Queens, boyfriend in a band," O'Rourke writes. "Now, subtract one earring for each of the following phrases that you answer yes to: I just took my LSATs, my parents are on their way for a visit, I have a church wedding coming up."
Still, Amy, this book's overall effect is to make me want to slug its author. Maybe that's one reason why O'Rourke didn't bother responding to the plaintive message I left on his Washington answering machine.
Compare that to the Mayflower Madam's behavior. She was only too willing to be interviewed about this month's "Mayflower Manners," which describes itself as an "Etiquette for Consenting Adults." Of course, Barrows is the very picture of politeness as she delves into such uncharted territory as: Is it rude to rip an exotic garment off a woman? (It depends on how much the thing costs.) Or when two people meet through personal ads, who is the host? (Whoever placed the ad.) Or even whether there are basic principles of etiquette that apply to the \o7 menage a trois. \f7 (No one should show favoritism.)
Barrows, of course, believes she's providing a valuable public service. "I don't think you'll find anywhere in the other books the proper etiquette for treating a call girl or escort service. And I don't think you'll see too many pages on how to behave at an S & M party in a club or a private home.
"A lot of people think, \o7 'Ugh, \f7 an etiquette book' and think of Letitia Baldridge and all that dry, ponderous stuff," says Barrows, defending her lighter touch. "That's what makes my book fun."
But it wasn't fun at all when a seemingly simple question about AIDS drew Barrows into a national controversy recently and one gay activist group in New York City claimed the Mayflower Madam had made a major faux pas.
The question was: "If a host invites a known carrier of AIDS to a dinner party, should he so inform his other guests?"
Barrows responded: "Yes. Most people will know that they cannot contract the disease by being seated at a dinner table with a carrier. But it is a courtesy to all to let them know ahead of time."
As a result, Barrows was "disinvited" to the premiere of a movie, while her publisher, Doubleday, was asked to issue an apology.
Using language not printable in a family newspaper, Barrows fumed that she had been the victim of a setup by "a very radical gay group that's always looking for media attention. How could I be disinvited to something when I was never invited in the first place? This whole thing is so personally upsetting to me I can't tell you. It's a real nightmare."
As for what to do in the situation, Barrows still sticks by her advice. "I have a huge number of gay friends and every time I've ever been invited anywhere I was always told if there was somebody with AIDS who was going to be there. Not because these people were trying to warn me. But because they wanted other guests to have an extra level of sensitivity."
On the other hand, both Baldridge and Martin didn't see the necessity for telling anyone anything. "At most respectable dinner parties," notes Miss Manners, "there wouldn't be any activity where you would catch AIDS so I don't see why you should have to tell people."