"Tell me the truth: How do I look?"
"Like a polar bear. One whose fish got away."
Under what circumstances would Miss Manners permit such an exchange?
Note that it is in direct violation of her admonitions that requests for reassurance should never be mistaken for the desire to hear the unvarnished truth, an urge that, so far as she knows, does not appear in nature; that truth is no defense when an insult is delivered; and that one should never pose unnecessary questions to which one does not want to hear a likely answer.
However, context is everything in etiquette, except where infractions have moral content, such as the criminal act of putting commercial food cartons on a table from which people are expected to eat. So let us consider the following situations:
1. Person looks like polar bear. (Whoops -- let's start again.) Questioner is recovering from long illness and wants to know if he is beginning to look normal.
2. Questioner confesses to going off diet and is anxious about whether additional poundage shows.
3. Questioner is going through emotional ordeal and is trying to calculate, before going among outsiders, whether they will be able to detect this.
4. Questioner is about to leave for an important occasion and asks for a last-minute appearance evaluation.
5. Questioner is buying clothing for such an occasion and has brought a friend along on the shopping expedition.
6. Questioner appears before family or close friends with new haircut.
7. Questioner appears before family or close friends with new makeup or way of wearing clothing.
8. Questioner is making nervous conversation with her bridesmaids, who have just helped her into her wedding dress.
Cruelly, Miss Manners will have to point out that many of these people may, in fact, look awful, at least in the opinions of their immediate beholders. But who should have posed that question, and to whom is the given answer within the bounds of courtesy?
The practical answer to the first part is that probably none of these people should have posed the question. Even the bride can't assume she is safe from being gone over by a committee of beauty, fashion and health experts whose ethics do not permit them to consider the effect on the subject when they are delivering a certifiably impartial opinion.
That is rather a shame, Miss Manners believes. Now and again, provided they don't overdo it, people ought to have a way of asking their intimates to reassure them about their appearance.
Only Numbers 5 and 7 require visual judgment. In these cases, critical advice is being sought about something in the experimental stage. The Spinach-on-the-Tooth Rule applies -- you only draw something unfavorable to a person's attention if it can easily be fixed.
Even then, one must be careful not to abuse the privilege. Fitting-room etiquette requires that the critic confine himself to evaluating the item under consideration, not the figure on which it is displayed, or the person's taste and style of dressing in general. And Miss Manners' example of a snappy answer would only be appropriate among close friends who tease each other affectionately; the polite form is "I don't think it does anything for you."
The other questions require emotional judgment. The errant dieter might be told, "I don't know -- it doesn't show in that outfit," or the person with the new haircut, "I can't tell -- I'm sure I'll like it when I get used to it." You may be sure that these statements express quite as much negative opinion as any person can bear.
The others just want some emergency emotional bolstering, which ought to be generously given: "Nobody would ever guess what you've been through," "You look sensational!" and so on.
These are not lies; they are honest answers to the real question of "Do you think I'm all right?" How odd it is that in an age that recognizes that the soul needs occasional pampering, it is assumed that the body seeks only cold and aloof judgments.
Q: I am at the age when a lot of my friends' parents are dying. Is it proper to attend a funeral of a parent I didn't know? My thoughts have been that I go to a funeral to honor the family members, i.e., my friends who have lost a parent or sibling.
I don't want to be improper on such a solemn occasion. But I love my friends dearly and would appreciate it if they came to comfort and acknowledge a death in my family, even if they didn't know my relative personally.
A: Miss Manners seldom receives question and answer in the same letter, but yours contains both. It doesn't leave her much to do but congratulate you on your sensitivity and commend your attitude.