It was only as a minor, practical illustration of a major etiquette problem that Miss Manners happened to mention that her morning newspaper was often unaccountably missing from her front porch.
It is not news to a lady of Miss Manners' vast experience that all that life promises is not unfailingly delivered. Such little disappointments naturally affect her as a consumer, as they do everyone else, but as the causes do not fall within her area of professional expertise, she does not generally air her grievances publicly. It was only in examining how businesses should handle the resulting complaints that she brought the matter up at all.
Well, my goodness. In came the letters from all those people who are also having newspaper delivery problems. Miss Manners is terribly sorry that they do and is redirecting their complaints in the hope that these shocking lapses will be corrected immediately. (First just give her one minute to finish laughing at the other customers' assumption that a person who happens to write for newspapers gets special treatment from them.)
However, she would like to use the opportunity to expand on the question of how complaints should be politely handled, not only by newspaper circulation departments but by other businesses that serve the public and are subject to periodic failures, which is to say all businesses that promise service.
Notice the formula of the third paragraph of this column: 1. Apology. 2. Promise to do something. 3. Acknowledgment that mistakes should not happen. (Skip 4. Bitter laughter. That is best done privately.)
Simple as it is, that is the procedure people answering complaints should follow. But they don't. The standard newspaper circulation conversation (Miss Manners has had a lot of practice at it) is:
Subscriber: "My paper didn't come again today."
Employe: "What's the address?"
Perhaps after the information is taken, the employe says, "We'll get you a replacement paper." But sometimes the acknowledgment is merely "Okay."
Rasher subscribers have told Miss Manners that they take the opportunity to make additional remarks -- complaining about the canned music they had to listen to while waiting for the call to be handled, for example, or expressing anger. The response, they report, is always "I don't have anything to do with that," sometimes followed by an equally forceful return anger.
As a result, the customer's original dissatisfaction with the service is compounded by the feeling that the company doesn't care that it hasn't delivered what it promised. Although individual employes may sound helpful, there does not seem to be a company policy of soothing the customer.
Employes don't think of this themselves, because they are thinking of themselves. They know that they are not at fault, they know that there is no such thing as perfect service, and they also know that customers are equally likely to commit faults -- failing to pay on time, for example, or exceeding the bounds of politeness when making their complaints.
All these things are undoubtedly true. But where, then, may a customer direct his dissatisfaction? Who is qualified to answer for the company, other than its president, reached at home at midnight, should you be clever enough to discover his number?
A proper employe should be taught not to think of himself or herself, when on the job, as an innocent individual under attack, but as the voice of the company, who is therefore able to accept the company's responsibility, express its regret and pledge its renewed effort.
As an impersonal spokesperson, the employe could state official shock that less-than-perfect service ever occurs, accept any auxiliary comments to be passed on to those responsible, and even tolerate anger, knowing that it is directed toward the business, not himself.
Even that matter of the canned music would be changed if it were considered from the point of view of soothing the customer, rather than from the company's convenience in signaling that it has the call on hold.
While it is naturally impossible to choose music that suits every customer's taste -- and never mind the fact that we are spoiled by sound reproduction techniques that make all telephoned music irritating -- there are two things that all such callers have in common: They are all newspaper readers. And none of them has received a paper.
Instead of attempting to entertain them with music, why not play a recording of the day's headlines?
This is only a modest suggestion, intended to illustrate that one defuses a complaint first by sympathizing with the complainer and then by considering his needs rather than one's own. It does not hurt the company to pretend that it is upset at mistakes, nor does it compromise the individual employe to assume the role of spokesperson rather than attempt to defend himself as an individual from what was never directed at him.
Notice that at no time did Miss Manners point out that she has nothing whatever to do with delivering the papers. If she did, she could perhaps figure out how to get one.
Q: How should frogs' legs be eaten? Should one use fingers or a knife and fork? Should they be eaten at all in a public restaurant?
A: Frogs love to defy systems of classification. That's their idea of being funny. Just when you place them neatly in one category, they leap unexpectedly into another.
In the discipline of etiquette, as opposed to biology, frogs' legs are classified with small game birds. Those are first picked away at with knife and fork, then held in the fingers to get the clinging meat (except under the most formal circumstances, where one can only place the tiniest bones in the mouth, clean them internally with closed lips, and then remove the inedible -- so most people just give up).
However, the silly things look like skinny chicken drumsticks, which cannot be picked up in the moderately formal circumstances of a slow-food restaurant. Therefore you could quite properly pick up a frog's leg and still create the impression that you just don't know how to eat chicken.
Miss Manners hopes this doesn't discourage you from ordering frogs' legs. Think of all the garlic butter you would miss.