The exercise of asking one person to imagine how another feels is used as a teaching aid in etiquette no less often than in morality.
"How would you like it if the cat pulled your tail?" the conscientious parent asks the erring child.
"I don't have a tail," replies any child with a modicum of sense, thus inspiring the less philosophical but more compelling rejoinder, "Well just don't let me catch you doing that again if you know what's good for you."
Miss Manners shares that parent's (in this case unjustified) faith that putting oneself in another's place will prompt one to figure out the right thing to do. Consulting one's own wishes as a guide to the probable preferences of others is a convenient shortcut to the realm of politeness that is based on consideration. (Note: It doesn't work for divining rituals and customs. To find out which side of the chapel is for the bride's family and which for the bridegroom's, there's no point in wondering where you would prefer to have your team if you were getting married. Just stop thinking and follow the usher.)
Increasingly, however, Miss Manners has become worried that attempted empathy can create, as well as solve, etiquette problems.
"I know just how you feel," announce people who couldn't possibly know, never having been in a remotely similar situation.
"You'll feel better if you cry," they declare to someone who had been managing to hold up under difficult circumstances.
But if that person doesn't quite manage to hold up, they'll command, "Smile!"
And if a smile is actually produced, they denounce the attempt a failure by saying, "You look tired," or that cheery favorite that could ruin even the happiest mood: "Come on, you don't have to put on a brave front for me. Tell me what's the matter -- you really look terrible."
Miss Manners does not wish to discourage empathy. It is still the best key we have to treating others humanely. She merely cautions that it has to be applied with a modicum of judgment.
Putting yourself in another person's place means imagining that person's point of view, not just thinking of what you, with your ideas, would do in the other person's situation. It may be true that if you were your grandmother, you would be indifferent to receiving thank-you letters for presents. Miss Manners tends to doubt it. But she knows as well as you do that this is not how your actual, very own grandmother feels.
In situations that no one who has not had the same experience could imagine, sympathy, not empathy, is the kind thing to offer.
For someone who has never suffered a loss to presume to understand what it is like to be the victim of a tragedy is a trivialization of the emotions. It should be a simple matter of humility to substitute "I feel for you" for "I know how you feel."
Even common situations can produce a complexity of reactions, encompassing a wide range of feeling. It is arrogant to tell people which emotions you expect them to feel.
"I suppose you must feel guilty" is an impertinence. Worse is ascribing to someone else an emotion of which that person might be totally innocent -- or might be fighting -- as in "You must be jealous."
Miss Manners is especially suspicious of any assessment of another person's feelings that begins with "You should give yourself permission to -- " or "It's perfectly normal to -- ." This is a tip-off that the advice isn't based on shared feelings at all, but on a glib knowledge of pop psychology.
To recognize someone else's feelings is comforting. To dictate what they ought to be is arrogant.
I have received from a close friend a very thoughtful gift of two videotapes, each starring a favorite actress of mine. I did notice, however, that one of the videotapes was a duplicate of one this same friend gave me last year.
In my thank-you note, should I say something along the lines of "Oh, it was so thoughtful of you to get me both videotapes -- I wonder if you forgot you gave me the same one last year when you started my collection?"
Do you fear a lifetime of receiving copies of this tape on every possible occasion, your smile getting more and more strained as your eyes seek to discover whether this friend has lost her memory?
If so, come back to Miss Manners after the fifth such instance. In the meantime, there is no excuse for the statement that someone was being thoughtful to include evidence to the contrary.
How old should children be for us to stop sending them cash gifts on their birthdays? Most of them never call or write. It is as though we do not exist. Yet they and their parents expect it.
Oh, they do, do they? Miss Manners is sorry to inform them that the age for sending these people presents is long past. Those beyond babyhood are responsible for understanding the legitimacy of an expectation of polite gratitude, as well as their own expectations of generosity.
1991, United Feature Syndicate Inc.