Now that taking offense has become a national pastime, Miss Manners needs to distinguish between two varieties of the activity.
The first is sifting through the constant unsolicited etiquette advice from friends and family on the subject of offensive language. For that, you will have to use your own judgment, remembering that correcting another person’s manners is, itself, rude.
The second is avoiding offending an actual person, as opposed to a theoretical one, and for this, the rules have not changed: Avoid commonly recognized terms of offense; know your audience; and if you see that you have, unintentionally, given offense, apologize. Anyone who does not accept a sincerely offered apology for the use of a newly minted and not yet generally accepted offensive term is being rude.
Dear Miss Manners: My fiancee and I are planning our wedding. She is displeased that I insist on following the rule that spouses must be invited together or not at all. Her grandmother is married to a man who has a long history of abuse against other family members; he also happens to hate me for bigoted reasons. This man is not welcome at our wedding. My fiancee wishes to invite only her grandmother, leaving the husband off of the invitation.
While I’m sympathetic, I told her we can’t invite her grandmother alone, and therefore we should not invite either of them. Etiquette aside, I feel that the grandmother shares some culpability for what has happened.
My fiancee thinks I am being unreasonable, and we are at an impasse. Should I put my foot down, or should I make an exception, even though I know it is wrong?
Before you put your foot down, you should examine the ground you are standing on. Few etiquette rules are free from exceptions.
The seriousness of the accusation against the grandmother’s spouse leads Miss Manners to believe that you have severed all relations with him. If that is so, it supersedes the requirement that he be invited. Grandma can come, but the offender will have to stay home.
If, instead, your use of the word was more metaphorical — a way of saying that, while you tolerate the husband at every family event, you find his behavior disgusting — then the rule about inviting couples reasserts itself, and you will have to choose between potentially insulting your fiancee’s grandmother or once again tolerating her boorish spouse.