"I've already got one."
This seems to be the natural way of giving and accepting a present, according to Miss Manners' careful observation of the ritual among people in their most nearly natural state.
But it is not only children, who, in their uncharming guilelessness, manage to take the satisfaction out of generosity and acquisition alike.
You would think, from the ungraciousness with which present-giving is usually accompanied, that it takes place between people who wish no credit for their kindness, and those who want to discourage the practice of which they are the beneficiaries.
The correct way to give a present is to accompany it by a shy smile. The correct way to receive one is with a look of astonished delight. The appropriate words are, "Thank you, I love it, how kind of you, this is marvelous," and "I'm so glad, I hoped you might like it."
But instead of this pleasant ritual, present-givers tend to shove their offerings with such statements as, "You probably won't like this, but I couldn't think of anything else," or "You're so hard to get presents for because you have everything," or "I was going to get you (naming something more expensive than the actual present), but I was afraid you'd never use it."
And there are an amazing number of present-receivers who think it appropriate to say, "I'm never really going to use this, so there's no use in my taking it," or "It's really too expensive -- you don't mind if I trade it in for something more practical, do you?"
All of this comes from the natural inclination to assess an object for its intrinsic, rather than its symbolic, value. And the latter is the civilized, rather than the natural, thing to do.
Do not mistake Miss Manners' preference for the common naivete of "it's the thought that counts," which would have it that all presents are equal. They are not. But it takes some sophistication to assess an object in terms of the trouble the donor has taken with it, first in observation, and then in either effort or money.
What makes any present valuable is that it confirms that the giver was interested enough in the receiver to take careful note of his or her needs or preferences. Deprecating statements on the part of the giver demonstrate that he has not cared to take that trouble; grudging statements on the part of the receiver indicate that any such attempt has been a failure.
The other value that needs assessing by one who receives a present is what sacrifice, however small, it represents on the part of the giver. Homemade presents are universally deemed to be charming, chiefly because hardly anyone has time and effort to spare. But few people have extra money, either, which is one reason that diamonds and automobiles, for example, make successful presents -- unless given by a husband whose regular jewelry bill the bracelet will be a small part of, or by a wife who was planning to trade in the old car, anyway.
Now -- once you have accurately assessed a present, how does this alter your behavior at the time of its exchange? Only by the degree of enthusiasm you supply when engaging in the ritual Miss Manners described. The difference, whether you have worked on a present for months or merely grabbed the nearest thing, or whether you recognize that the giver has done the former or the latter, is in the glow that accompanies the shy smile or the astonished delight. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. You have sung the praises of wearing gloves. While I must admit I am sadly remiss when it comes to wearing gloves, it is something I do plan to do more often. One thing, however, leaves us quite puzzled.
When one is wearing gloves, should one wear one's rings under or over the gloves? I have asked a number of friends about this, and no one can seem to agree on what is proper. I am left, I must say, quite vexed.
In addition, should one take into account whether one is simply dealing with ordinary rings, such as an engagement or wedding ring, as opposed to major stones such as a several carat cocktail ring?
A. This is what comes of asking one's friends for etiquette advice, when there is a proper authority at your service. Whatever else these people are telling you about how to run your life -- don't do it. Rings are never, under any circumstances, worn outside a glove. The mere thought makes Miss Manners dizzy.
Q. Will you please give us gays some advice on correctness -- for example, what is the proper seating at a dinner party, how does my mother introduce my lover to her friends, how do we respond to "bring your spouse" business occasions, what do our nieces and nephews call us (aunt, miss?), how are obituaries handled?
A. Society does not concern itself with any sexual affiliations -- only with legal ones, such as marriage -- and Miss Manners would think that you would be grateful to leave it at that.
Therefore, unmarried people who go about together socially in whatever combination are called friends. They are addressed by their names, they bring each other along on business occasions only when the invitation includes a friend or guest, not just a spouse, and they are not listed among the legal survivors when one dies.
It is Miss Manners' opinion that asking society to involve itself in one's private life is a big mistake.
Q. My question concerns being a guest in someone's home in a foreign country where one is not familiar with the local rules of etiquette. This is based on an incident that happened to me on a recent trip overseas, and I am still a bit upset about it.
I am male, 30, was raised in the rural Midwest, and consider myself to be a fairly polite person. On my trip to England, I was invited to spend a day in the home of the family (parents and sister) of a female friend I had met on a previous trip overseas (not in England). The day went fine until the afternoon tea. We were eating pate, when I made the seemingly terrible mistake of picking up a small cake (more like a cookie) and placing it on the edge of my plate before I was finished with my pate.
The mother, who had made no secret of being anti-American, gave me one of the most horrified looks I have ever seen. She made a comment about mixing sweets and sours (I had never heard of such a rule) and then burst into uncontrolled laughter, which she maintained for a very long time.
This may not have bothered me as much normally, but I was trying very hard to make a good impression, and I was also somewhat defensive from having to defend America all day. I felt extremely angry and insulted, and although I kept my temper, I became very flustered. As you can imagine, the more flustered I became, the more the mother laughed, slapped the table and pointed at me. I felt I had made a very small mistake and was being treated very rudely because of it.
As you may be able to tell, this letter is as much to vent my anger as anything else, but please answer the following questions:
What is your opinion of both the mother's and my reactions, and how much etiquette is one really expected to know before visiting people in a foreign country?
A. Ah, the English. Miss Manners cannot figure out how they lost their empire, as they are peerless in psychological warfare. Here you have an Englishwoman who, after insulting her guest's nationality, pointing at him, making personal criticisms, laughing uncontrollably, and actually slapping her own table, has succeeded in making the guest worry that he has been guilty of some lapse of manners, and daring only to wonder if the magnitude of his offense justifies her behavior.
Pull yourself together, sir, and be a credit to your country, where hospitality is the prevailing rule among gentle people of all classes. Please recognize that what you did was to wander innocently into the lair of a barbarian.
Customarily, one does eat, at teatime, hot food first, then sandwiches, then sweets. But that is merely because most people prefer to leave the little token dessert for last -- it is not a rule of etiquette that must be maintained whatever the guest's preference. By choice, or as a foreigner not accustomed to English teatime, you need not be ashamed to eat what is served simultaneously in what order you please.
You may recall that the British appeared on these shores more than once, behaving very badly indeed, and that we vanquished them. If you wish Miss Manners' aide as a patriot to do so again, do not hesitate to call upon her.