We no longer need a special season dedicated to helping others. Everyone is already helping everyone else all the time, and generally without even waiting for the formality of a request, Miss Manners has observed.
Absolute strangers will offer help in the form of health advice, such as, "Do you know that stuff you're eating is poisoning your system?" Mere acquaintances will help out by recommending exercise programs, diets and changes in hair styling and wardrobe -- all on the assumption that you couldn't really look the way you do on purpose.
Friends and relations are especially helpful in evaluating your other intimate ties. "She's no good for you" and "You ought to know that everyone but you realizes he's a jerk" are only the surface remarks. Analyses are also available, such as, "What you're really looking for is a mother," or "What you think is love is only unresolved guilt."
The truly conscientious will not limit themselves to helping with the more exciting parts of life. They are also scrupulous about offering helpful suggestions in such mundane matters as your household arrangements, work habits, mannerisms and use of the language.
There is nothing like a good friend to help you out when you are not in trouble.
Life's little helpers reason that the first step toward improvement is the realization that things need to be improved. That is why they feel justified in approaching you when you are perfectly content in order to point out that everything you do, eat and love is a dreadful mistake.
Because they themselves are so full of good wishes for the rest of humanity, they do not expect their beneficiaries to be petty. They figure that upon being told how you have mismanaged your life, you will be grateful for the offer of assistance, and reassured that others are watching out for you. It stands to reason that one who obviously does not know what is best for himself would be relieved to find that others are willing to take on that responsibility.
After all, they don't just stop after telling you what is wrong, but always go on to explain in detail how you can do things the way they do. In other words, the right way.
Miss Manners is reminded of the teen-aged gentleman who, having noticed that young ladies enjoyed nothing more than the opportunity to cry on a masculine shoulder, took care to provide them first with something to cry about.
As a special holiday treat, and because it is the season to think generously of others, Miss Manners would like to propose gently that everyone just cut out all this helpfulness right now.
She suggests this first as a matter of manners. It is rude to call people's attentions to their shortcomings, no matter how much you have their welfare at heart. It is rude to assume that anyone other than minors in your custody is less capable than you are of making minor and major decisions about how to live.
And no, it doesn't count if you prepare the way by attempting to convince people who didn't realize it just how badly in need of help they are. In the etiquette lexicon, the statements necessary to break down a person's self-satisfaction to the point where he admits that he was in worse shape than he had fondly imagined are still called "insults."
The following statements are all insults:
"You really ought to be going out more."
"Keep on smoking like that and you'll be dead in five years, and you won't be able say I didn't warn you."
"Why do you waste your time watching that trash?"
"How can you let anyone treat you like that? If you had any self-respect, you'd tell him where to go."
"A good plastic surgeon could fix that."
"Now's the time for you to have children, while you're still young enough to cope with them."
"Let me give you the name of my workout class."
"You just think you're in love."
"I don't care if you think you don't want one -- you need a home computer, and once you try it you won't be able to live without it."
"You ought to have your colors done."
Miss Manners might also point out that many matters commonly the subject of unsolicited help -- such as looks and character evaluations -- are purely subjective. Why should one person's estimation of what kind of a haircut would flatter you be better than another's, or than your own?
On questions where there is generally conceded to be danger, the person who chooses to ignore the danger is bound to know that he is doing so at some risk. That smoking is bad for you, or that it is statistically perilous to marry someone who has had a dozen spouses who died mysteriously, has not escaped the awareness of the person who has decided to do this anyway. All that helpful criticism adds in such a case is the information that others are standing by, expecting the worst.
Miss Manners will now stop carping and try to confine herself to saying something helpful. (Hasn't she just been observing with what relish others do this?)
That is: If you want to help other people, do them favors, instead of giving them advice. A favor is something such as running an errand, offering a lift, or pitching in with a task that the recipient has first acknowledged he wants done.
Miss Manners promises you that such offers will be received with more gratitude than insults generally are. Q My fiance' and I are considering doing something a little different when it comes time to send out our wedding announcements.
We are both devout Catholics and contribute regularly to several special charities. We have both saved enough money to live comfortably without the usual monetary donations couples receive as wedding gifts. So we would like to include a note along with each wedding invitation to this effect:
"The couple would sincerely appreciate a donation to the charity of your choice in their name as a possible alternative to a wedding remembrance."
I've never heard of this being done before. Is it terribly rude, or should we go through with it? A While duly appreciating your motives, Miss Manners regrets to tell you that what you propose is indeed terribly rude. You can give a charity ball, or you can give a wedding, but you cannot give a charity wedding.
Acknowledgment of the very expectation that people will give you money, or any other present when you marry, is rude.
However, it would be perfectly gracious to donate wedding checks to charity, and to say in your thank-you notes, "We used your generous present to do something special that makes us very happy" and then explain the cause to which you have given.