"What can I do?" polite people ask when there is a tragedy, such as severe illness or death, among their acquaintances. "Please let me know if there is anything I can do."
In subtler times, the extent to which the speaker was actually volunteering to help depended on which words were emphasized.
"What can I DO?" or "Please let me know if there is anything I can DO" meant "If you're really desperate, you can call me, but otherwise I trust you're already in good hands and will be all right." It was the polite way for a fairly distant acquaintance to express concern.
The correct answer was "Oh, that's so kind of you, but I'll be fine, really."
People who were actually anxious to pitch in and help knew to say, "What can I do?" or "PLEASE let me know what I can do." The correct answer (notice the subtle differences) was "Oh, no, that's so kind of you, but I know how busy you are and I'm sure I'll be fine soon."
This was followed by "PLEASE, I INSIST," after a few minutes of which the tragic figure could say, "Well, if it really isn't too much trouble," and then name a small task.
The sympathizer would respond immediately with "Yes, yes, of course," and could also negotiate for an additional, larger task.
Our present social life is not characterized by subtlety, Miss Manners has been noting for some time. Most people still seem to know to say, "What can I do?" but they all pronounce it the same, and the exchange about what the person can actually do rarely occurs.
This often leaves the recipients of this particular politeness bitterly remarking that "Lots of people asked what they could do, but then nobody did anything."
There is, by the way, still lots to do for someone in the midst of tragedy. But what to do in the individual case will vary -- different cases may even require opposite actions. For example, some people feel they need to be alone at such a time, while others wish not to be left alone. So figuring out whether to offer company or help in fending off company requires subtlety, too.
Let us first get back to learning how to make an opening offer of help that is to be taken literally.
People who have done their basic duty (such as making one visit, sending a kind letter, attending a funeral, or whatever is appropriate to the tragedy) and merely wish to signify their sympathy and their availability only for extreme emergencies, can continue using the bland pronunciation of "Let me know if there's anything I can do."
Others must insist all the more, to make up for the current lack of understanding. First one should say, "No, no, I REALLY MEAN IT -- it would be a comfort to ME, too, to feel that I could be of SOME help, however trivial," and then make specific suggestions.
Each of the suggestions should be bolstered vehemently. "Do you want me to stay with you? No, this happens to be a particularly free time for me, and I would like nothing better than to be with you at this time. I won't hear another word -- let me get my things."
Or "OK, if you really want to be left alone, let me field your calls for you and make your excuses. Give me a list of whom to call."
Other services one might offer are baby-sitting, food (conventionally one brings food for condolence visits, anyway, but it can also be useful during other difficult periods), shopping or errand-running, answering mail, or supplying distractions in whatever form might take the person's mind off his troubles.
We do want particularly to avoid hurting people's feelings while they are down. That is why Miss Manners keeps insisting that the more difficult the situation, the more etiquette is required.
Q: I would like to know the proper way to put toilet tissue on the roll in the bathroom. If you have printed tissue, is the print supposed to be on the top of the roll or the bottom?
A: What in heaven's name is the matter with this society? Can't anybody figure out anything anymore without appealing to poor overloaded experts? Miss Manners works hard, attending to the propriety of all your encounters with other people. When you go into the bathroom, you're on your own.
Q: I have encountered people who will, when talking about a recent vacation, hold a suntanned forearm next to the relatively pale one of another person. I do not do this, because it is boastful.
Not only that -- it is insulting if the "victim" cannot afford such a vacation. It is also particularly annoying if the victim is, like me, naturally very pale and able to get dark skin only with great difficulty or not at all. How should one react to such behavior without giving in to it or being rude?
A: The way one reacts to all boasting -- by saying, "How nice for you," with an emphasis on the "for." One neither assumes that this is a financial slur nor mentions possible health hazards associated with tanning.