"Do you know what it's like," the usually sunny lady inquired plaintively, "to be written off as a success?"
Miss Manners is not sure that there is such a thing as a usual complaint in the etiquette field; she has long ceased to be astounded at the ingenuity that can be expended in inventing forms of offensiveness. But this complaint was so unusual that it took Miss Manners a while to establish that it wasn't about something else -- for example, its opposite.
No, the lady was not talking about how people treat failures. Those whose misfortune is perceived as chronic may be rudely put down by the more fortunate, and those who have reversals of fortune are sometimes callously deserted by their former supporters. But neither situation was the topic under discussion.
Nor did this appear to be a complaint about impolite (even if understandable) reactions to success-inspired arrogance or ostentation. As far as Miss Manners could ascertain, the transgressions under discussion were unprovoked by gloating.
Their victim even denied that they could be the result of envy. "I'm talking about the same people who were always my friends -- even about my relatives," she said. "I really do think they're pleased that after all these years, my efforts are being recognized and rewarded. These are the people who encouraged me all along. I couldn't have done it without them. They don't mean to be unkind -- on the contrary.
"But it's as though I've forfeited my standing among them by being lucky. The kind of consideration they used to show me -- the kind they expect from me -- no longer seems to apply."
Miss Manners asked for specifics.
"Everybody always talks to me about money. When I didn't have much, the same people would never have dreamed of speculating about how much -- how little, rather -- I had.
"But now it comes into everything. Let's say a friend complains to me about being tired or overworked. I sympathize and admit that I'm tired too. 'You?' he'll say. 'Why, you must be laughing all the way to the bank.'
"So I've learned never to mention my work, even when everyone else is talking about theirs. But it doesn't help. Sooner or later someone will turn to me and ask, 'Still raking it in?'
"Notice the 'still.' This not only emphasizes the fact that my success is precarious, but makes me sound selfish, as if I've been hogging it for too long.
"Needless to say, I try not to report my little ups and downs. If something nice happens, the same people who used to jump up and down with glee for me are now bored and ask, 'What did you expect?' If I have a setback, instead of commiserating, they say, 'So what -- it's not important.' "
Miss Manners inquired whether things were all right when the subject of work didn't come up.
The lady looked embarrassed. "No -- you see -- well," she confessed, "my personal life is under control too. In fact, it's kind of nice. That's another thing I have to be careful not to mention. If your children turn out well, nobody wants to hear about it.
"But this is beginning to sound as if I just want to talk about myself. That's not my point at all. What I miss is just being considered to share a common humanity.
"I seem to have been disqualified from showing the interest I always had in other people's triumphs and troubles. If I'm happy for someone else, that person will say, 'Of course I know it's nothing in comparison with what you do,' as if I were trivializing the accomplishment. And if I'm upset for someone else, I'll be told, 'You wouldn't understand,' as if I'd never had any worries and wouldn't know how to cope with them if I had.
"I'm not asking for credit because I have my life more or less in order -- I just want to be treated like everyone else again."
Miss Manners wished her success.
Q: I am vehemently opposed to the wearing of fur, the fur industry, trapping etc. I have supported groups that share my view, by contributing funds and long hours of volunteer work.
Two of my sisters-in-law received fur coats as holiday gifts. We socialize together quite a bit, and in all honesty and integrity, I cannot praise their newly acquired attire. I can't be hypocritical, but I don't want to offend. What can I say to them when we are together?
A: Miss Manners so much admires your restraint in not wishing to make your principles into an annoyance to others that she is delighted to be able to release you from your etiquette qualms.
Contrary to popular opinion, it is by no means obligatory to admire the expensive acquisitions of others. Although occasional compliments are pleasant, it strikes Miss Manners that there is altogether too much social notice being given to other people's dry goods.
For you to pretend to admire fur coats would be ludicrous. The greatest kindness you can do your sisters-in-law is to say nothing. Should they be so foolish as to prompt you for an opinion, Miss Manners would think you more than justified in saying quietly, "You know I can't approve."