Miss Manners: Unpleasant news doesn’t have to be conveyed unpleasantly

November 29, 2012

DEAR MISS MANNERS: As a difficult part of my job, I am required to dismiss students who fail to meet academic standards. Such a dismissal is done in person, but it must be accompanied by a letter detailing the specifics of the situation and the action taken.

I continually struggle with how to end such letters. Closing the letter with “Sincerely” or “Regards” seems to me too pleasant for such a negative letter, but closing the letter without any valediction seems too cold and abrupt. I would appreciate your thoughts on this matter.

GENTLE READER: Is it your thought that unpleasant news should appear in an unpleasant format?

‘’Sincerely yours” and the slightly stiffer “Yours truly” are conventions, which is to say that they convey neither warmth nor coldness. That is a great advantage conventions offer — neither the writer nor the recipient needs to analyze them. Miss Manners hopes that you have not balked at addressing these students as “Dear,” on the grounds that you don’t love them.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: A dear friend has recently written me with some bad news concerning her health. I would like very much to express my continuing thoughts and prayers for her, without falling into the “me-me” trap.

For example, I don’t want to say, “I was very upset to hear that you have X disease.” My feelings, after all, are not what is important in this matter. But I am at a loss as to how to express my support and concern.

GENTLE READER: Expressing sympathy and affection do not constitute the all-too-common me-me reaction that Miss Manners commends you for wanting to avoid.

Me-me would be announcing that you had troubles, too, or that you knew of worse cases, or that you knew just how your friend felt, or that you were sure things were not as bad as reported, or that you advised her that pulling herself together and thinking positively would make her problem disappear.

Expressing your own sympathetic feelings is quite a different matter. It is a comfort to know that people care; your dear friend would hardly want to think you unaffected by her news. Once you have conveyed that, you will be right about dropping the subject and allowing your friend to speak of her feelings — or not, as she chooses — knowing she has a deeply sympathetic listener.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: The other night I was dining with a lady friend at an outdoor table at a nice restaurant. During the meal, the elegant lady accidentally knocked her purse off the side chair, and the contents of the purse spilled across the concrete patio. As a gentleman, I did not feel comfortable diving under the table to fetch the possibly private contents of her purse. At the same time, I did not feel comfortable sitting still while the gentle lady crawled under the table without my help.

As may be typical in these sorts of situations, paralysis took over and I did nothing but sit there. What should I have done?

GENTLE READER: Ask the lady at the time, rather than Miss Manners after the fact?

While appreciating your delicacy, Miss Manners wonders why she is drawn into the situation. You could have said, “Please, let me help you,” and refrained from doing so if the lady squealed from under the table, “No, that’s all right, I’ve got it all.”

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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