WHAT A satisfying act of charity it is to visit the sick. One need only pop unannounced into a hospital room, hand out a dripping bundle of flowers, reassure the patient that his or her bath, dinner, nap or whatever need not be interrupted during one's stay, commiserate in some such conventional phrase as "Oh, you look awful!", put things in perspective by reciting the history of one's own greater ills, and offer practical assistance by explaining treatments at variance with what the patient is undergoing that would be more beneficial.

There are those who so much enjoy performing this service that they faithfully visit hospitalized acquaintances with whom they are not moved to socialize during those people's bouts of good health.

Such kindness is not always fully appreciated by those upon whom it is visited. No wonder sick people have an unfortunate reputation for being cranky.

One must humor them, however, so Miss Manners feels obliged to require the charitable to curtail their good offices somewhat to meet the whims of the unhealthy.

The first is that one requests the invitation to make a hospital visit, and accepts no for an answer. Many people who are hospitalized do not feel up to enduring being cheered up. Those who have limitations on their energy or on the number of visitors or time for visiting may prefer to devote these resources to intimates of their own choice rather than the voluntary visitor.

And there are those, notably repeat patients in maternity wards, who regard hospital stays as cases of quiet, not to be marred by social duties. The ideal visit of a nonrelative to a maternity patient consists of first walking by the baby viewing room and then putting one's head into the mother's room and declaring "Yours is the most beautiful baby in the nursery," and then disappearing.

Visits to sick patients should last no more than half an hour, and 20 minutes is 10 minutes better. The question "Am I tiring you?" is better not asked, as the likelihood of the answer's being both honest and polite is small.

It is customary, but not obligatory, to bring a small present on a hospital visit. Living vegetation should be self-contained, which is to say that one brings potted plants or flowers in vases. Other presents that hospital patients have told Miss Manners they especially appreciated included bottles of champagne, books, games, body rub for massages, a liverwurst sandwich with a can of beer, and a bottle of gin. It is considered proper not to bring anything that the doctor has declared likely to help kill the patient, however much the patient may appreciate it.

The chief rule about conversation during a cheering-up visit is that it be cheerful. The difficulties of the patient, whether or not they are discussed, must be acknowledged to be the ranking current woes, and it is rude to attempt to top them with one's own or anyone else's tragedies, past or present.

It is the patient who decrees whether the illness is to be discussed, and who does all the talking on the subject. It is of surprisingly little comfort to be told that one's sickness is considered by others to be either more serious or more trivial than one has oneself decided that it is. The visitor may either chuckle or cluck-cluck at the patient's description, depending on whether it is narrated with humor or with pathos, but opinions, anecdotes or advice offered by the visitor can only end in conversational disaster.

All patients, whatever their complaint, are to be told that they look "amazingly good." This remark is designed to comfort both the seekers of sympathy and the seekers of reassurance, and must therefore not be elaborated upon under any circumstances. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS

Q. After our recent wedding, we were sending out our thank-yous for our wedding gifts. We then realized that a very close family on the bride's side had not given us a gift.

It is virtually inconceivable that this family would not give a gift, but there is no recollection that a gift was given. It is possible that "the envelope" has been lost. This family did give the bride a shower gift which could have been interpreted as a wedding gift.

Should we contact this family, or is there no danger that if a check was given that it can be cashed by anyone else? If a check was given, the family should realize in a couple of months that it has not been cashed and will contact us. Should we write a thank-you for their attendance at the wedding and not mention a wedding present?

A. You will not be offended, Miss Manners trusts, if she asks you to acknowledge that the question of a present's having been lost is always a euphemism. Brides who do not write their thank-you letters may be quite properly prompted by being asked if a particular present was received, because the giver fears it was lost in the mail.

Your question, translated from the euphemism, is whether you may equally well use this device to prompt a wedding guest who has been tardy in giving a present. Do not think for a minute that Miss Manners has been fooled by the apparent naivete of your wondering whether it would be illegal for a finder to forge your name on a check.

The answer is no, you may not draw the absence of presents to the attention of wedding guests. But yes, you may be able to accomplish the purpose by writing to tell them how glad you were to have them at your wedding or, better yet, by writing how very much you are enjoying the present given at the shower.

Q. How does one cope in a job interview with the question of why were you dismissed from a previous position?

A. The only reason for having been dismissed by an employer is that the two of you were unable to agree upon your future in the organization. It is perfectly proper, and even thoughtful, to refuse to elaborate on this on the grounds that you had some happy years at that place of employment, and do not wish to discuss anything unpleasant concerning anyone there.

Should the employer who dismissed you choose to disclose the fact that he fired you for charging your secret lunches with his wife to the company expense account, he will at least not have marked you as a liar with your prospective employer.

Q. I find it difficult to accept compliments or congratulations. What should I say that is appropriately modest, without seeming to question the judgment of the person complimenting me?

A. "Thank you." Or, if you feel that is not enough, "Why thank you very much, how kind of you to say so."

Actually, you already knew that. What you don't know, Miss Manners suspects, is how to leave it at that. You then babble on to explain that the achievement was nothing anyone couldn't have done, the article of clothing is old and valueless, and that whatever is admired compares unfavorably with the equivalent quality or possession of the admirer.

To put this under the heading of modesty is absurd. It actually serves to prolong the compliment by treating it as the topic sentence in a speech rather than, as is more likely to be the case, a passing pleasantry. The only disadvantage of debating a compliment one has received is to reduce the chances of its recurring.

Q. Since we're geared into high fashion now, what about the etiquette of gloves? A lady with standards shouldn't take off her gloves when shaking hands, should she?

A. Indeed not, unless she is a lady subject to uncontrollable bursts of enthusiasm for direct human contact, in which case Miss Manners prefers the naked handshake to the promiscuous and noisy kissing of near-strangers. Truly forgivable behavior when wearing gloves consists of eating, drinking, smoking and saying "Pardon my glove."

Gentlemen remove their gloves when shaking hands. Please do not expect Miss Manners to justify this discrepency on any basis of logic, morality or equal opportunity.