Miss Manners: Oh dear, another literalist needs help

September 15, 2011

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have long been unsure about the use of the salutation “Dear” in business correspondence. It of course seems fine for mail or e-mail going to a relative or friend, but never seems quite right on an e-mail to a business acquaintance.

I do receive lots of correspondence addressed this way, especially from other countries, but when I’m writing I tend to use “Hi” or “Hello” as a more informal salutation. “Dear” means beloved or precious, so it seems inappropriate to use this for someone I may never have even met face to face.

GENTLE READER: “Dear” also means expensive. Words can have multiple meanings and uses. And — a shock to many — conventional pleasantries are not meant be taken literally.

Miss Manners doubts that you want to turn yourself into a bore who argues with “Good morning” because it’s raining, delivers a medical report when anyone asks “How are you?” and delivers critiques of unsuccessful presents instead of saying “Thank you.” Nobody mistakes the business salutation using “Dear” for a love letter.

Besides, you undercut your own argument when you advocate a “more informal” salutation. Why should you be on informal terms with people you have never met in the course of doing business?

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I was very much in love with a young man whom I thought I would marry. I gave him a treasured book, a paperback version of “The Little Prince,” that was a gift from a very dear aunt.

We broke up, as life happens, but still stayed in touch on and off. We always wish each other a happy birthday every year.

The dear aunt who gave me the book passed away recently, and I find myself wanting to ask for the book I gave away. We broke up over 10 years ago, so I can’t imagine it means anything to him, and I don’t even know if he still has it. Would it be rude to ask for him to return it?

If not, how should I ask? I’m a sentimental person, and I give gifts from the heart. But whenI gave this book, I thought this person would always be in my life.

GENTLE READER: According to the Rule of Romantic Returns, requests should be made at the time of breakup. And while compulsory returns do include heirlooms, as well as pledge items such as engagement rings, and letters (as if there were any nowadays), a paperback book does not qualify.

So you are asking a special favor. That you are on pleasant terms certainly helps, but Miss Manners cautions you not to risk embarrassing the gentleman if he no longer has the book after 10 years. It risks implying that he is callous, whereas anyone with overloaded bookshelves or disintegrating paperbacks would sympathize.

She suggests telling him about your aunt, of whom he must have known you were fond, and then adding, almost as an afterthought, “If you still have that book of hers I gave you, I’d be happy to trade a fresh copy for it.”

DEAR MISS MANNERS: The other day I was in the checkout line at the store with my infant daughter. The cashier asked me if my daughter was planned. My pregnancy wasn’t planned, but I said yes anyway because I was so embarrassed. What should I have said?

GENTLE READER: “Would you be so good as to add up my bill?”

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

2011, by Judith Martin

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