'How can I tell my lover it's all over without making him feel rejected?"
"This woman keeps calling me. I don't want to reject her, but I'm really not interested."
"What's a polite way to get rid of someone without rejecting him?"
Miss Manners receives questions like this all the time. She stares at them, gets up and walks aimlessly around the room, goes out and makes herself a pot of tea, returns to her desk, looks at them again and sighs.
Then she folds them up neatly, puts them back into her desk, and turns her attention to letters with sensible questions, such as what to say when a friend falls down the stairs ("Did you trip?"), or tells you how awful you look ("Thank you").
The desk is acquiring that overstuffed look. The belief that it is a sin to reject anyone for any reason, or even to allow a person to feel rejected, is widespread. It ought to follow that there are a great number of people who sacrifice their own interests to the desires of others, but that, as the questions indicate, is not what they had in mind.
Oh, well. If logic were what Miss Manners cared most about, she wouldn't be fooling around with etiquette, which is remarkably deficient in it. It behooves her to figure out what it is that these people do want.
She will begin by being grateful that interest is being expressed in how one's conduct affects the feelings of others. There is not an excess of that going around, and Miss Manners is all for spreading happiness in the world.
However, she cannot, in good conscience, encourage this by advising people to entertain, lend money to, or marry whoever wishes them to do so. An etiquette rationale for refusing would be that that person would ultimately be less happy if married to someone who thought him a creep, although Miss Manners is not sure that this reasoning would apply to the borrower of money.
The raw fact is that etiquette, unlike the next step up in the way of behavior -- saintliness -- does not feature martyrdom. Even Miss Manners does not distress herself by wondering, when someone stands on her foot, how she can make that person feel more comfortable.
The question, then, ought to be how to reject someone in the kindest way possible. That is something Miss Manners can, indeed, would be delighted to, answer.
But when she continues to read the letters, having retrieved them and smoothed them out nicely, she finds another contradiction. After requesting a non-rejecting way of ridding themselves of pests, these people often specify that they want to be open and honest about it.
They suggest that all of these objectives may be accomplished by informing the unwanted person with all frankness, just what it is about him that is unbearable.
Now just a minute here. Miss Manners has only managed to get this far by translating the idea of not rejecting to mean not doing so cruelly. But she can hardly think of anything more cruel than presenting someone with an irrefutable argument stating why one would have to be out of one's mind to have dinner, or spend one's life, with him or her.
The greatest comfort, when one is rejected, is to believe that the other person is making a dreadful mistake, which will be bitterly regretted sooner or later. Such thinking is most easily achieved when one is rejected on vague and flimsy grounds.
It is easy to understand that the person who is always too busy to go out with you, or suddenly in need of solitude to reassess life, or just not ready to settle down with anyone, is a fool. Anyone with a grain of sense would see how much more important it was to seize the opportunity of being with you.
Suppose, however, the one you love admits that those things would not matter if the right person came along, but that you, given your personality, looks, conversation and personal habits, will never be that person. Or suppose you are told that you seemed, for a while, to qualify, but on better acquaintance have proved hopeless.
At best, you must then try to go on knowing that a person you value has pronounced you unworthy. At worst, you make a pitiful effort to change what that person doesn't like about you and find that even if it is something you can change and do, it doesn't help.
Therefore, while one can hardly get through life without ever rejecting anyone, it is important to be able to do so without attempting to destroy that person. Checking the temptation to justify the rejection with honest and open arguments, and allowing oneself to be considered capricious and foolhardy, is the humane thing to do.
But finally, Miss Manners fears she must both reassure and disappoint those who do the rejecting by informing them that most rejected people get over their rejections and go on to live perfectly good lives, sometimes made happier by remembering what might have been.
Q: Is it socially acceptable to use binoculars at the dinner table?
A: Only if you have invited your guests to dine at a bird feeder.
Q: I have a distinctive name and a high-profile professional position. Two persons with the same last name have occasionally been the subject of news coverage about their pending criminal charges. Such media accounts always trigger the disagreeable question, "Are you related to . . . ?" This situation has been going on for several years and is likely to continue for several more. What does Miss Manners suggest?
A: You don't have an etiquette problem. All you have to say, when asked if you are related to these people, is "no."
Those who have the problem are the ones for whom the answer is "Yes." Leave it to them to carry on about innocence until guilt is proven, hardships causing behavior that is symptomatic of illness and not evil, and forgiveness for those who make mistakes.
You should not attempt to do this, but neither should you denounce these people, which would also suggest emotional ties. A shrug at the coincidence, performed with a air of boredom to indicate that this stupid mistake has been made before, will do it.