IF YOU wish to improve yourself for the New Year, Miss Manners will register no objections. Not a few of you, she has noticed, could -- how can she put this delicately? -- stand it. She would just appreciate it if you would get to work from the outside in, improving Miss Manners those sloppy manners before you begin on the mess in the soul.
But please do not resolve to improve others. It would be far better to resolve to accept others cheerfully as you find them.
Let us not descend to the personal here, and notice the fact that Miss Manners spends her life in the quixotic task of improving others. She does so only when asked.
No such restraint is generally practiced in the society. On the contrary, there seems to be a notion about that we are all presenting ourselves, in every aspect of our persons and our lives, to be critiqued by relatives, friends, acquaintances and utter strangers.
"You ought to get out more."
"You'd look younger with your hair shorter -- let me give you the name of my hairdresser."
"That baby is going to catch cold if you don't put something on his head."
"She's not right for you."
"Stop worrying about calories and enjoy yourself."
"Do you know what that's doing to your health?"
"Stop holding everything in -- you'd feel better if you got it all off your chest."
"That color makes you look fat."
"If you got some real exercise, you wouldn't feel so tired."
"Let me tell you why you seem to have trouble getting along with people."
"You shouldn't just let your money sit around like that doing nothing."
"You look terribly overworked."
"You two should get away from each other once in a while."
"Are you sure you're all right?"
None of these is the opening of a declaration of deep concern from one intimate friend throwing out a lifeline to another -- it is what passes, these days, for the pleasantries of ordinary conversation. The idea that one is not constantly submitting one's looks, habits and philosophy for critical scrutiny occurs only to those to whom these remarks are addressed.
And at that, they merely complain to Miss Manners of the tactlessness of the phrasing, without questioning the premise of whether we all really do want to live up to our best potential, or at least whether we want to be helped to do so.
Fair game for social missionaries are: their own minor children, certain victims of the social professions (pupils, patients, apprentices), and one's very own self.
Whatever happened to, "Oh, really? I never noticed it. Well, don't improve yourself too much. I like you just the way you are." MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. A most interesting dilemma was posed a few weekends ago, when I was the guest in the baronial manor of an Eastern Shore multi-millionaire, one of three houseguests put up for a conference. None of us knew each other or our host. I arrived just in time Friday to sit down to dinner, a fair-sized party including people who were not houseguests but came from nearby to meet us.
When (dear me) we rose from the table to take coffee in the library, I left my purse on a dining room chair. And when I went to bed that night, I found my wallet had been swiped! A kleptomaniac?
I know I had it when I arrived. I didn't dare accuse anyone or ask the host or guests to be searched. I did nothing, except gulp heavily and ask if anyone had seen it -- smiling all the while. Was that correct? Needless to say, I never got it back and have spent hours canceling credit cards and making up plots on which person could have been the thief.
Is there a mannerly way, however, of asking to search your fellow houseguests or the rooms of your host?
A. A polite way of saying, "All right everyone, up against the wall"? Well, no, actually there is not.
The only thing that justifies accusing people of a crime when you have no evidence on which to indict them is success. In other words, if you grabbed one of the other guests by the throat, shoved a hand into his pocket, and extracted your wallet, you may carry your point. If you then extracted only his handkerchief, you would, yourself, have become the social criminal.
Besides, there is a law of nature that says that anyone who risks an accusation like that will discover her wallet in her other purse. What will you say then?
The most you can do is to indicate your extreme distress at having lost your wallet, and then to stare hard at whoever you think took it. Depending on how good your stare is, it might unnerve a guilty person into ridding himself of the evidence, although Miss Manners must warn you that people who steal from their fellow guests do not cringe easily.
Q. At Christmas I had occasion to talk by phone to my niece and I made the remark that she probably didn't remember me or my husband very well. I hadn't seen her since her marriage about nine years ago, and prior to that, I rarely saw her. I later learned through her grandmother that my remark had hurt her, because she well remembered us and the unusual gifts we used to send her.
I, too, had an aunt who did lovely things for me when I was a child: gave me my first roller skates, a lovely small cedar chest, etc. I have never forgotten her nor ceased to love her, although we rarely see each other.
I think the secret of joyful gift-giving lies in the lack of thought about how much we intend to spend or how practical the gift should be. Anybody can stick $10 in an envelope along with a card and consider his "duty" done, but the person who goes out looking for something a little different will sometimes end up with an ideal gift for as little as $3.50. The giver will have all the fun of selecting it and anticipating the surprise at the receiving end of the line.
And perhaps we make too much over failure to receive thank-you notes, particularly from children. It's the parents' responsibility to teach children that it's nice to say thank you, but shouldn't our gifts be given with no thought for thanks? "The Lord loveth a cheerful giver" applies to nieces, nephews and grandchildren, every bit as much as it does to a contribution placed in the collection plate.
A. As you have so charmingly mastered the art of present-giving, why do you expect so little on the receiving end? The Lord probably also loveth a graceful receiver, but in any case, the givers certainly do.
You mention the pleasure one anticipates in the surprise one's present produces. What about the pleasure of knowing for sure? The purpose of a thank-you letter is not only, as some people seem to believe, to force a payment in labor in exchange for a present, but to allow the giver to know that his generosity has been appreciated.
This, unfortunately, does not come naturally. Left to their own meager devices, children or anyone else will accept all kinds of offerings as no more than their due, without the least thought of expressing genuine pleasure in them, much less of simulating pleasure when there is none, as a way of showing appreciation for the sprit of the giver, if not for the item chosen.
It is not selfishness to want to know that your kind intentions have had the desired effect -- you expect the dog to wag its tail when you pet it, don't you? Would you be just as satisfied if it growled and walked away, knowing that you had performed your side well?
Yes, it is the job of parents to teach this, but other relatives can sometimes encourage it, too, with gentle inquiries about whether the present was received and if it suited.
And speaking of which, why don't you write your aunt, right now, and tell her how much you remember, after all these years, those lovely things she did for you? Do you suppose that her interest ended with her own behavior and that such a reaction would mean nothing to her? Wouldn't you have liked that niece to have let you know, now and again, that she remembers you warmly?