Miss Manners: Expressing compassion to strangers requires deft touch

November 12, 2012

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a 62-year-old woman and was in a large university hospital visiting a friend who was being moved into hospice care. There were several people waiting for an elevator on that floor.

I saw a woman about 30 years of age quietly weeping. I so wanted to put my arm around her, but I didn’t. I couldn’t even find a dry tissue in my purse to offer her. Should I have put my arm around her and said something? Not one of the many people waiting or in the elevator said anything to her.

GENTLE READER: Many years ago, one of the leading proponents of the theory that hugs are always a comfort, even from strangers, said publicly that he was once in a hotel elevator with Miss Manners and thought she would benefit from a hug.

Fortunately, he refrained. The least that mild-mannered Miss Manners would have done if a strange man had grabbed her in an elevator would have been to brain him with her purse.

Obviously, you appeared to be less threatening, but it is never a good idea to startle a stranger like that. Offering the tissue would have been kind, and just saying, “Can I get you anything?” would have shown compassion in a distant enough way that would not intrude on the lady’s grief.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: A friend of the family wrote on his card (which included a generous wedding gift), “No thank-you note requested.” This man is my father’s business partner, and as someone whom I have known since I was very young, it seemed inappropriate for me not to acknowledge his gift, even at his request.

After weeks of mulling over the appropriate response, I opted to send a short but sweet e-mail instead of a paper thank-you card I sent to everyone else. Despite having made my decision, I still feel uncomfortable disregarding his request. What would you recommend that I do in the future, should such a situation arise?

GENTLE READER: No doubt your father’s partner saw this as added generosity on his part — to excuse you from an onerous duty. But you were right to recoil from his suggestion, because it would have forced you to be rude.

How is that possible (Miss Manners imagines you wondering), when you would only be complying with his suggestion? If he doesn’t care about receiving thanks, why should you bother giving them?

The answer is that otherwise, he will have made you into an ingrate.

It is the essence of letters of thanks that the writers must seem to be writing spontaneously out of gratitude that they feel and can’t help expressing. This is why obvious form letters — ones that begin “Thank you for the ...” or, worse, pre-printed ones — are unsatisfactory. So by agreeing not to write, you would be admitting that you were not actually grateful and were relieved to be free of the chore of pretending that you were. Your benefactor may declare this not to be rude, but you and Miss Manners know that it would be.

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

2012, by Judith Martin

Distributed by Universal Uclick for UFS

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