As if it weren't shocking enough that people now routinely neglect the most routine social duties, they will also offer excuses for this that are simply unexcusable.

"I got so many presents that I don't have time," says the bride who didn't write a thank-you letter.

"I was depressed," says the friend who failed to show up when expected.

"I knew it would upset me," says the friend who failed to pay a hospital visit.

"I don't feel up to entertaining," says the widow who complains of social neglect but doesn't reciprocate invitations.

The translation of each of these statements is: "It was your feelings against mine, and I decided that mine were more important."

However accurate and logical this may be, explaining it does nothing to mollify the feelings of the person whose claim was so dismissed. The polite response to one of these explanations, which is "Of course I wouldn't want you to trouble yourself," can also be easily translated--into a few short words, and they are not kind ones.

Miss Manners happens to believe that people who force themselves to do what they know is their duty, in spite of inconvenience or distaste, benefit enormously from the exercise. The only relief we have from the rampant selfishness of our time, which does not deliver the self-fulfilment it promises, is the habit of occasionally entering sympathetically into the feelings of others.

A fortunate person increases his or her chance of prolonged happiness by cultivating the habit of gratitude, rather than considering that tributes and favors received are merely his or her due. An unfortunate person increases his or her chance of escaping from unhappiness by concentrating on pleasing others rather than on the unpleasantness.

But at the very least, a clear lapse from duty should not be compounded with a self-serving and self-justifying excuse. (We are talking here about duty that is acknowledged by both sides to be valid. For refusing invalid claims that are presented as duty, no excuse is necessary, as in "I'm flattered that you thought of volunteering me when I didn't even go to the meeting, but I'm just going to have to decline, because although it breaks my heart, I'm afraid I simply won't be able to do it.")

Miss Manners hereby withdraws, as excuses for failing to live up to legitimate expectations: 1) busyness, and 2) malcontentedness.

You may take it as a general rule that everyone considers himself to be busy--overburdened is more like it--and that unless you are in the midst of a demonstrable emergency, such as giving birth, people will never acknowledge that your busyness is more pressing than their busyness. The same goes for feeling low, to which anyone not in an obvious state of crisis can make equal claim.

The unspoken replies to those people with the inexcusable excuses are:

"If I was not too busy to choose, buy and send you a present, you cannot be too busy to spend two minutes acknowledging it."

"If I was prepared to receive you graciously, regardless of what mood I might have been in, you should have been prepared to fulfil your commitment graciously, regardless of your mood."

"If I am in the hospital, I assure you that my illness is more serious than the discomfort you may get from observing it."

"If you feel up to being my guest but not my host, what you mean is that you don't feel like doing the work involved but you figure that I should."

Q.Please say something about children answering the telephone. Experiences with children on the phone are often frustrating.

Of course, the first responsibility lies with the caller. The first question should not be, "Is your mother home?" This is likely to get a plain "Yes" or "No" or perhaps "She's in the bathroom." Also, a "no" answer may give dangerous information to the wrong person.

When a child answers the phone, why not say "May I speak with your mother?" The child's reply should be "Yes, I'll call her." What she shouldn't do, but sometimes does, is shout, "Mom, some woman wants to talk to you." This starts the conversation off on three wrong feet.

Can't we teach the kids to use simple cordiality in tone, as well as words? A little family role playing could help. How would you feel if John called and I was rude to him?

I'm also a believer in not letting the children answer the phone at all until they are old enough to write a very simple message, preferably name and number, which should be repeated carefully after being written down. The small child can babble $16 worth of long distance without benefit to anyone but Ma Bell.

A.Miss Manners quite agrees with you that children should not be answering telephones until they have acquired the ability to do so politely. She would only like to make two small adjustments in your suggestions for the adults involved.

The first has to do with teaching techniques. In Miss Manners' experience, the statement "How would you feel if . . ." should be used with caution. Perhaps the child would secretly think it hilarious if you were rude to his friend John. A small child can learn by rote to say "Just a minute, please," much more easily than he can deal with the psychological underpinnings.

The second is that the question "May I speak with your mother?" presumes that the childish voice belongs to an immediate descendant of the person you are calling, when in fact it could be a visitor or a high-pitched adult. A child who is old enough to answer the telephone is old enough to learn that his mother has a name other than Mommy.

Copyright (c) 1983, United Feature Syndicate Inc.