GENTLE READER: How odd — Miss Manners has been noticing the opposite. Even in business correspondence, she is now seeing breezy substitutions for the conventional salutation (“Hi!”) and closing (“Best,” sometimes with “wishes” or “regards” but more often alone).
In part, this comes from the Faux Friendliness phenomenon: the notion that the only polite attitude is that of friendship, even in situations where friendship does not exist or, in the case of strangers, could not exist.
But it also arises, as in your case, from unfamiliarity with conventional phrases, and the resulting habit of guessing at their meaning.
It is not unreasonable to suppose that declaring oneself “yours” indicates an emotional attachment, but it happens that the opposite is true. “Yours truly” is the most businesslike sign-off, even when “very” is thrown in, and “Sincerely yours” is the formal closing for social correspondence when the writer is not inspired to offer something in the range from “Affectionately yours” to “Love and kisses.” Similarly, “Dear” is the conventional salutation, by no means indicating that the correspondent holds that person dear.
These phrases, with variations, go back at least as far as the Renaissance, and seem to have been intended both as reassurance that the writer is who he claims to be and is making honest statements, and as flattery, that timeless way of getting someone’s attention.
Miss Manners understands that conventions change over time. It would be startling, nowadays, to receive a letter signed by “Your most humble and obedient servant,” although in its time, that suggested neither humility nor obedience nor servitude.
But she regrets seeing the use of widely understood phrases disappearing in favor of individual interpretations. They save so much time, worry, misunderstanding and tedium.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I work at a state hospital where we receive lots of prisoners from the state Department of Corrections facilities. For this reason I, as well as other employees and visitors, frequently run into prisoners as they are being escorted to their varying destinations.
It has become a big debate in my office on what is the appropriate way to handle this situation. Do you ignore them as if they were not there, or do you acknowledge their presence with a polite “Hi”? My office is split down the middle and needs your official opinion.
GENTLE READER: It is Miss Manners’s understanding that hospitals are dedicated to helping all people, without prioritizing them according to their moral worth. She hopes that you will apply this principle to the way you treat them as human beings. If you customarily greet patients and visitors in the hallways, you should do so to them all.
New Miss Manners columns are posted Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays on www.washingtonpost.com/advice. You can send questions to Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com.
2014, by Judith Martin