It is apparently not all that blessed to receive.
In the spirit of Christmas, or something, Miss Manners's Gentle Readers have been complaining about the burden of expressing gratitude, and requesting instruction on how to express dissatisfaction instead. Here are some commonly asked questions from those who don't believe it is the thought that counts.
What is the minimum possible expression of gratitude?
"I am an unpaid, elected officer in my church, and also secretary of the board of trustees. Every year the board distributes small gifts of money to all the regular volunteer workers. I am the only one who does not send a thank-you note to the board. Am I wrong?"
Of course you are wrong. Miss Manners supposes you base your stand on the thought that you deserved what you got. Let us rather be grateful that we don't get all we deserve.
"If I receive a gift and write a prompt thank-you note, is my obligation discharged? Or am I expected to mention the gift with verbal thanks when I next see the giver, six months or a year later?"
If the present is memorable enough to make that possible, yes. Miss Manners understands that the fruitcake may have slipped your mind by July, but a written "Thanks for the car -- I'm sure I'll get a lot of use out of it" is not enough.
"When our second child was born, I was grateful for the gifts and attention, as it's sad when children after the first one are ignored, but I had to give up precious sleep to stay up and write thank-you notes, as it was the only time I had peace and quiet. Is there an easier way?"
Yes: Demonstrating ingratitude requires no effort at all and generally solves the problem of receiving presents.
What am I supposed to do with the silly thing?
"My daughter recently gave me a lovely box of chocolates. I gave her some of them for my grandchildren and offered some to friends. I believe in sharing, and it gave me pleasure to do this. She said no, the gift was just for me to enjoy."
Miss Manners is delighted to hear that you enjoy sharing more than gobbling. In any case, the present, once given, is yours to dispose of as you see fit.
"In an enduring relationship, is the receiver of a gift obligated to use the gift even if he or she doesn't like it? Must one read the book, play the game, display the object, take the trip, wear the jewelry or eat the food? In the case of a monetary gift, must the receiver decide how to spend it? Can we discard gifts that impose on our time or go against our tastes and values? How can the receiver avoid hurting the feelings of the giver without lying?"
It should never be a lie to say, "You were so sweet to give me this." Improper inquiries about the fate of a present can be parried, but to dispose of a present, when the relationship is such that the donor can't help knowing, is a symbolically bad move.
Can't I just give it back?
"When someone gives a present and it has to be returned, is it proper for the giver or the recipient to return it?"
About the nastiest thing you can do with a present is to return it to its donor. Not only does this announce that the effort to please failed, but it sends that weary soul back to the scene of the failure with another task.
"I gave a purse to each of two sisters, and now their mother has returned them to me with the comment that 'the girls had no use for them' so perhaps I 'should find someone else who could use them.' I admit that my taste can be old-fashioned, but even if this was not a breach of etiquette, would it not have been kinder for the girls or their mother to pass them on to someone else?"
Gestures that unnecessarily make other people feel rotten are, by definition, breaches of etiquette.
How can I suggest that the donor try harder next time?
"For the past two years I have been living with a man I utterly adore. He's always thinking of my well-being, but it never seems to be at the expense of his own integrity. If there is never any problem in my life that is larger than this one, I will count myself among the most blessed of the blessed; nevertheless, some -- not all -- of his gifts are not what I really want. The gold bracelet is too wide for me; the emerald ring is too flashy; the expensive workout ensemble is styled in such a way as to make me look fat. I hate to see him spend his hard-earned money on things that make me uncomfortable, and I especially don't want to have to pretend to him. I know he has no pretenses with me."
You must care a great deal about your comfort, to value it so much more than romance. Miss Manners can hardly think why anyone would want to cure an adored gentleman of giving emerald rings, but the way to do it is to say long in advance of an occasion: "I'm not good with surprises. Can we shop for our presents together?"
Q: I recently married a wonderful young woman. We had dated for five years and were very confident in our decision to marry. We are committed to making our marriage work and last.
But people constantly ask me, "How's married life?" Some of them are married, some have never married and some are divorced. The divorced ones inevitably follow the question with a snide "Just wait." I've been shocked at the amount of anger and pain in their faces as they say this.
It's almost as if the divorced people are putting a curse on us. I realize that statistically their prediction has a 50-50 chance of coming true, but I believe they should be supportive of our marriage despite their own failures.
A: Statistically you may have a good chance of getting killed on the highways, but Miss Manners hardly thinks this would justify people in saying snidely "Happy landings" instead of "Bon voyage" to someone leaving on a trip.
Miss Manners suggests you counter the remarks by saying, "Oh, no, you don't know my wife." A bit of smugness is called for in the delivery.
Q: Last Christmas there was a story in the paper about a 5-year-old who upset her kindergarten classmates by telling them there is no Santa Claus. When the teacher asked the little girl to kindly keep that information to herself, the child's mother became indignant. Claiming abridgment of her daughter's freedom of speech, she removed the child from the school.
This incident has nothing to do with First Amendment rights and everything to do with manners. The essence of good manners is being loath to offend another person when there is no constructive reason to do so. A young woman with good manners is reluctant to inform her great-aunt Alice that she (the young woman) has moved in with her boyfriend or has taken a lesbian lover, if that information is bound to pain Aunt Alice.
Parents who do not want their young children to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy may so instruct their children. If, however, they want them to have good manners, they will tell the children that it is wrong to use that special information to hurt other children who have different beliefs.
The parents will explain that just because something may be "true," that is not sufficient reason to talk about it. People with good manners do not initiate conversations about other people's weight problems, their physical or intellectual handicaps, or their possibly outmoded beliefs if those beliefs aren't harming anyone.
A: Miss Manners wishes you hadn't mixed up the little girl's declaration with the hypothetical big girl's. There is quite a difference between the question of Santa Claus's existence and that of someone who is sharing one's apartment.
Couldn't you have made an analogy with a young atheist's refraining from debating theology with her religious aunt? Then it would have been a clear-cut case of not challenging others' beliefs, rather than concealing one's living arrangements.
The rule is that one does not denigrate others' faith by declaring that what they believe is not true. Miss Manners thinks that rather too much was made on both sides of a small child's artless challenge, but agrees that the difference between what is open to class debate and what is personal should have been taught.
How right you are that this is a question of manners, not of rights. And Miss Manners agrees wholeheartedly that truth is not a defense against bringing up hurtful subjects.
How much we must conceal about ourselves is a more complex issue. Miss Manners sees no reason why she should exhaust herself going into it just now, since she was the one who brought it up, not you.