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Etiquette vs. the not-so-noble savage

Judith Martin, the Washington Post's arbiter on etiquette, also known as ''Miss Manners,'' is now appearing on the ''Today'' show to lay down the law. When Bryant Gumbel asked the author of ''Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior'' if he could call her Judith, he received the friendly but firm reply: Not yet.

Something formal is in the wind - and we don't mean just three-piece suits and dress-up weddings, though that may be part of it. Not long before witnessing Miss Manners' rebuff, we watched a dinner party being staged in a local television studio to illustrate table manners. Small freckled lads in dark suits , who might otherwise be playing Huck Finn, imitated Little Lord Fauntleroy as they squeezed a lime on their melon under the eye of an etiquette drill sergeant.

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People who advise on manners are inclined to believe passionately that these little things count. A New York University professor, Neil Postman, asserts in a new book called ''The Disappearance of Childhood'' that not only childhood but literacy will reappear if we will revive manners. ''Manners,'' he declares flatly, ''are a social analogue to literacy.''

We are not suggesting that books on manners are about to blow books on diets or cats right off the best-seller lists, or that etiquette quizzes will become the latest craze among TV game shows. Despite zealots like Miss Manners and Mr. Postman, most Americans have always been of two minds about manners.

In the first place, there is the example of Jacksonian democracy. It is part of the credo that those honest muddy boots on decadent satin chairs kept the nation from going soft.

Manners have been suspected of being - well, Europeanm . All that bowing and scraping goes, surely, with powdered wigs and frilled cuffs and effete aristocracy.

Organized rudeness, if not worse!

In American novels and films it is the villain that is perfectly tailored and overflowing with pretty compliments. Heroes stammer and stumble, like Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, and blurt it all out: ''I ain't much of a one for fancy ways, butm . . . .''

The popular prejudice has argued: The less manners a fellow had, the more trustworthy he was, and vice versa.

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In fact, if a man had really good manners, he wasn't quite a man - unless, of course, he was an Englishman, like David Niven, or a Frenchman, like Charles Boyer.

Manners have been perceived as something women want - trying to turn life into a front parlor on Sunday, all dancing-school curtsies and genteel.

Even our artists have felt most themselves, being a little uncouth, like Walt Whitman and Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. It goes with being as ''honest as all outdoors.'' Writers like Henry James have had to earn our trust - in spite of their good manners.

Manners have been associated with conformity, which is un-American, and with suppression, which, we are told, is bad for the health.

How can an individual be rugged if he's been smoothed to uniform correctness, excruciatingly?

The philosopher George Santayana, watching American parents trying to achieve results without resorting to discipline, found the perfect metaphor for liberalism. A liberal, he said, is man who wants his son to wash behind his ears because it is the child's idea.

We have to become a little desperate - as we are these days - to become interested in manners. The ''Me Generation'' is our natural style when things are going well. Manners look good only when order seriously breaks down - when one simply doesn't know what code, if any, other people are living by.

Without some agreed-upon limits, a final confusion extends from the family to the international community, and every other human being becomes a potential terrorist.

Some days we can feel we're getting close.

The wistful ideal behind manners is that, if we can just get the salad forks straight, we may be able to set rules about nuclear weapons too, and possibly find small ways to say to our friends, ''I love you.'' For without some rules, who would dare risk either peace or intimacy?

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