When Miss Manners hears the word "personalize," as in "We want to personalize our announcements" or "Surely you want to have that personalized," she gives off an involuntary, barely perceptible shudder. Something mildly vulgar is about to happen.
Now why, she asks herself, should she feel a Bad Taste Alert over such a sympathetic concept? (People who happen to spot her alone on her porch swing, sternly interrogating herself in this fashion, sometimes begin to have questions of their own.)
Miss Manners is certainly not on the side of the impersonal. She would not want important occasions and treasured possessions to be bereft of touches associated with the actual people involved.
But "personalizing" is so -- impersonal. The term is most often used when the intent is to create the false impression that individual attention has been given to something that has been mass-produced, or to make a mess of a tradition that is perfectly coherent the way it is, or to aggrandize the individuality of the sender by sacrificing the individual attention that is due the recipients.
Faked individuality is epitomized by the computer letter which cleverly inserts a name into the middle of the text, so that the person addressed thinks, "Gee, they could have put my name at the top of a form letter, but if they put it in the middle, this must really mean that they wrote the whole letter just for me."
The trouble is that there is no one left who thinks that. Miss Manners must have greater faith in the intelligence -- and suspiciousness -- of the public than those who send such letters. She figures that it took the first recipient about six seconds to figure out that it was a form letter, three seconds to admire the technique, and perhaps a few minutes to find out, from the nearest child who had taken computer programming, how it was done. And that the ploy has never since fooled anyone.
If commercial enterprises nevertheless want to go on believing in the effectiveness of such personalization, Miss Manners does not want to disillusion them. She does want to disillusion anyone who thinks the technique can be used to fool friends into believing that they are being treated as friends, which is to say really individually.
Now Miss Manners does understand that there are grand occasions when one must address one's friends all at once. There are legitimate social forms for mass mailings, such as wedding and graduation invitations and announcements.
The very standardization of these conveys the dignity and formality of the occasion. The personal part is supposed to be the names, which tell you which individuals are participating in the tradition, and even the dates on which they are doing so.
Messing with the traditional forms by adding cute touches only undercuts the formality of the occasion, suggesting that one is not really taking it seriously. It also incidentally demonstrates how standardized and limited are the ways in which people reach for originality.
But what discourages Miss Manners most, and what is responsible for that delicate shudder, is the spirit in which they do so. Any personalized mass mailing must, by necessity, skip being personally tailored for the person who receives it.
The epitome of this is the mass Christmas letter, which states everything personal about the writer, without regard to how much the recipient already knows or might find of interest.
Adjusting the standard form, or even writing one's own form for mass mailing, does not achieve a personal touch. When formal announcements are not warm enough for intimates, they should be supplemented with notes or telephone calls saying "Guess what?" or "You've got to be there." Or the formal can be skipped altogether in favor of the personal announcement, personally written, in the writer's personal handwriting -- "We have a new daughter," "I'm finally graduating," "I want you to be the first to know."
Miss Manners is puzzled about why it seems so hard to realize that the way to personalize things is to do them personally.
Q.I was taught by my mother to tuck my shirttail into my pantyhose when I wear a skirt. She told me that this way my shirttail would not show through my skirt. It also keeps my shirt anchored.
We discussed this at work, and most people had never heard of it. One person even called me tacky. What's the deal?
A.Tacky? To do what your mother taught you?
Miss Manners is shocked.
Not that she has heard of this particular practice. What goes on underneath the clothing is decidedly out of the range of etiquette.
It should also be out of the range of public criticism. But before Miss Manners can condemn your office colleagues for condemning your pantyhose practices, she feels obliged to point out that since they had never heard of such a thing, there is only one person who could have told them about it.