Is it true that we now live in a world where there is more joy than sorrow? Miss Manners doesn't know how else to account for everyone's knowing how to wish fortunate people happiness, while expressing sympathy is so strange and frightening that many people will choose the rudeness of silence rather than even attempt it.
Statistically, it turns out, as many people as get married, die. In fact, more people die than marry although, unlike marriage, they tend to do it once and for all.
And yet no one ever refuses to go to a wedding, crying pitifully as an excuse, "I just wouldn't know what to say."
As you know, Miss Manners requires you, when someone you know has died, to write a letter on condolence to the family, attend the funeral or memorial service, and pay a formal visit on the family afterward. So she will tell you what to say.
Say, "I'm sorry."
Or "I'm so sorry" -- Miss Manners allows for individuality of expression.
If you can't manage that much, simply press the person's hand, look meaningfully into the eyes (this is done by raising the eyebrows from the nose bridge in) and arrange the lips in a weight-of-the-world smile (done by raising the central part of the closed mouth at the same time as the corners are slightly raised.)
However, there is a great variety of interesting things NOT to say. There is practically no limit to what imaginative and ill-meaning people will think of to increase the suffering and impair the dignity of the bereaved. w
"It's all for the best."
"You mustn't carry on like this. She wouldn't have wanted you to grieve."
"Do you really think you ought to be going out like this -- so soon after?"
"Oh, well, you'll soon have another child (marry again, meet someone else)."
"I'm surprised to see you've changed things about so. I should have thought you would have wanted to leave the house as it was when he was here."
"Of course you feel terrible. You must have all kinds of guilt feelings about what you could have said or done differently before it was too late late. Would you like to talk to me about it?"
"I don't want to interfere, but I notice that you've let the children go back to their play group. Don't you think it's a little early?"
"You must feel just awful. I know you're being brave, but you can let it out with me. Go ahead, cry. It must be a terrible strain for you to act so matter of fact as you do."
"It's really much better this way. You wouldn't have wanted her to linger on and deteriorate, and this way you can remember her at the height of her youth."
"At least you had many years together. It's not like what happened to me."
"Of course, you can do what you want. But do you really feel it's respectful to the dead?"
"Oh, dear. What can I say?" MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. The event that has reddened my face every time I recall it, happened months ago, at a semiformal Christmas party. It has been suggested that I write to you concerning it, either to set my mind at ease or to confirm, for once and for all, if my action was so atrocious that I should become a hermit, due to apparently unforgivable etiquete.
My date and I were introduced to General and Mrs. General in this way: "General and Mrs. General this Mr. A . . . " -- at which time I extended my hand and " . . . and Miss B." General ignored my hand and turned to the lady with me. My open hand was left hanging in mid-air for what seemed an eternity before it fell, shaky but unshaken, to my side. I have been confounded ever since.
Does a man not offer a handshake until after his female companion has been introduced and/or shaken the hand of the party to whom they are being introduced? Am I a bumbler or had I merely run into the city's most arrogant stick-in-the-mud?
My habit has always been to extend my hand immediately upon my name's being pronounced.
A. If Miss Manners sent you off to be a hermit, she would also have to send off the general and the person who did the introducing, which would make it much too crowded hermitage.
The proper introduction, with accompanying gestures, would have been: "Mrs. General, may I present Miss B . . . and Mr. A."
Mrs. General then put out her hand, first to Miss B., then to you -- or doesn't, in which case there is no handshaking. The choice is hers. Then, it goes "Miss B, this General Nuisance. General, this is Mr. A." Miss B. decides whether to shake hands with General and General decides whether to put a hand out to you, unless, of course, you are Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and therefore outrank him. Then, you would even outrank the women, and initiate those handshakes.
The point is that the higher-ranking person -- and socially this means women before men, except in the case of presidents, kings or popes, and the greater age and more exalted positions before the younger and less significant -- either sticks out a hand or doesn't.
But the worst error is to pass by a hand that has been extended, however erroneously. Therefore, the general gets demoted, and you now outrank him. Congratulations.
Q. Mine is not an earth-shaking problem, but to me, nonetheless, it's seriously annoying. There are so many horrendous situations confronting us collectively and individually that mine falls into the hoo-hah! category and each time I'm confronted with my "problem," I determine with a vengeance that I'll ignore it. But alsa, to no avail.
Through the years, I have always had, for a woman, a deeply pitched voice, and now that I've past the big five-0 and with the help of several packs of cigaretts a day, I apparently sound like a tugboat horn in a bag fog storm. Many times a day, I have telephone conversations with both men and women addressing me as sir -- "Yes, sir," "No, sir," "Hold on, sir." I'm a woman in spite of sunding otherwise. I know you're attempting to be courteus, but I am a woman.
No matter how I attemp to handle it, I feel awkward, dippy, am misunderstood or wind up sounding belligerent and petty. The bottom line is that I am developing an almost pananoid aversion to making phone calls to anyone other than people who know me and recognize my voice. I am deadly serious about wanting a halfway civilized means of handling this goofy thing that is really causing not only personal but business problems.
A. Miss Manners considers all etiquette problems earth-shaking, and all earth-shaking problems (except possibly volcanoes) to be basically matters of etiquette. Some day, when she has a minute to spare, she will tell the world how to end war and other unpleasant phenomena through observing correct forms of international behavior.
In the meantime, let us consider the matter of your voice. As no one is intending to insult you, you must deal with the honest mistakes of others as courteous disabled people, for example, do with inappropriat but well-intentioned gestures.
Actually, you are already doing well, simply calling attention to the error. If you could develop a small chuckle while saying, "No, I'm a woman with a low voice," you could avoid sounding belligerent. Or you could say your first name loudly in the hope that they catch on that Mary Catherine must be a woman. Of course, if your name is Brooke, this won't help.