A thank-you letter from a store does not have the desired effect on Miss Manners.
It is not that she doesn't appreciate seeing handwritten notes, bubbling with gratitude and the desire to see her soon again. Such a thing, a dim reminder of the letters relatives and friends used to send to those who gave them presents or dinner, is of priceless rarity in today's world.
Miss Manners's Gentle Readers assure her that they haven't seen one in years. Generous souls that they are, they keep right on striving to earn the gratitude that never arrives.
Many are so beaten down as to accept the manifesto of the ingrates -- that people should give only for the sake of giving, and it is selfish to expect gratitude in return -- but weakly plead that they merely want to know whether the present arrived.
Nonsense. They want to know it is appreciated. And if it is not appreciated, they want to be told that it is.
Miss Manners does not have these problems. She attributes this not only to the quality of her relatives and friends, but to her belief that a lack of response means that the person does not enjoy receiving presents.
She recommends this attitude. Even a small child can be told: "When you pat your dog, you like to see him wag his tail, because that means he likes it, so you do it again. If he just walked away, you wouldn't."
But if she's so crazy about thank-you letters, what is wrong with the ones from the stores? They are almost always correctly addressed, nicely handwritten and well composed.
Somehow they just don't make her bask in a sense of having done something nice for someone else. The reaction they produce is more like: "Uh, oh. Been spending too much money."
If parodying the forms of forgotten social graces by commercial establishments does not always work,the establishments nevertheless should not be discouraged from being polite.
Business politeness consists of cheerful efficiency. Excellent service includes the manifestation of being actually pleased to assist the customer, even if it means solving problems imaginatively rather than merely reciting standard procedures.
Hotels brag that their concierges have mastered this -- flying in peculiar foods at even more peculiar hours; matching a rare, missing cuff link, and so on.
Perhaps. But recently Miss Manners was at a famous hotel when she found a heel had broken on the only pair of shoes she had with her, and she asked the concierge if they could be taken out for repair while she waited in her stocking feet.
"No," said the concierge.
"Well, there's a shoe-repair place a few blocks from here. You might run up and ask them."
It is in this context, of American industry painfully trying to master the rudiments of service, that Miss Manners was startled to hear of an enterprising Japanese businessman introducing in his country a sensational, important practice: American rudeness.
The founder of a chain of discount electronics stores is meeting resistance from his clerks as he tries to train them not to be polite to the customers, but he is persevering on the principle that low prices, not service, are the key to success.
Actually, Miss Manners has noticed in this country the odd phenomenon of clerks in discount shops often being more helpful than those in more pretentious establishments. She takes that as simply another demonstration that money -- in this case, paying higher wages -- is unconnected with manners.
But there is a point to be made for eliminating the pseudo-social frills about which the Japanese businessman complains, such as stopping to play with the customers' children.
Miss Manners has a compromise to suggest: Never mind the thank-you letters. Just give us something to be thankful for.
Q. A tragedy occurred where I work: A couple who are both employed here lost their baby after she carried him for 8 1/2 months.
We were instructed by management not to send cards or even letters of sympathy to protect the couple from any further pain or reminders of their loss.
I do not feel right ignoring this death. However, I question my own motivation for wanting to write a letter. Would such a letter be selfish? In comforting myself, would I be bringing more pain upon them?
A. Miss Manners doesn't know what business your employers are in, but she hopes they are better at it than they are at her business. That you could even consider it selfish to sympathize with others boggles Miss Manners's mind.
There is no question of "reminding" these people of their loss. Miss Manners assures you that they remember it, day and night. The only reminder silence provides is how callous the world can be to tragedy.
The reason etiquette makes firm rules about such matters as writing sympathy letters (you seem to think cards the first choice -- they are a poor second), rather than leaving them to people's common sense, is that so few people seem to have any.
Fortunately, you have decent instincts. Please follow them.
Q. Several months ago I hired a friendly, hard-working, reliable woman to help clean my house. She speaks only Spanish, and usually this is just a minor inconvenience, since I speak tolerable Spanish.
However, I've noticed that when other people are in the house, the situation is a little awkward. When I make a pot of coffee and offer a cup to a friend, do I translate that it's half decaf and that the cream and sugar are on the table? When my friend and I burst into laughter over some joke, do I try and explain in Spanish?
I realize that ours is a business relationship, but I don't want her to feel excluded. I would appreciate guidelines on which conversations are appropriate or necessary to translate, and how I can minimize her feeling any isolation.
A. Disguising a business relationship as a social one has disadvantages for both employee and employer. Miss Manners dares say that your housekeeper would prefer to get on with her work so she can enjoy her free time as she chooses, rather than delaying it by listening to your and your friend's translated jokes. Privacy works both ways: Surely you would not intrude yourself if she had a visitor.