On the day Miss Manners's hard disk crashed, she began to understand why people want to stop strangers on the street to talk about their operations or their divorces.
There is something about undergoing a natural disaster, as Miss Manners thinks of her computer crises (when her quill breaks, she is willing to take the blame upon herself, after staring at it reprovingly), that urges one to spread the obviously personal bad news promiscuously. One unreasonably cherishes the expectation that others will grab an emotional share of the emergency.
The reaction for which Miss Manners now sheepishly realizes she had hoped was along the lines of the civic panic dear Mr. James Thurber described in "The Day the Dam Broke," which is about a day in Columbus, Ohio, in 1913, when the dam didn't break, but everyone ran in terror before the onrushing rumor.
"There are few alarms in the world more terrifying than 'The dam has broken!' " he wrote. "There are few persons capable of stopping to reason, when that clarion cry strikes upon their ears, even persons who live in towns no nearer than 500 miles to a dam."
Surely a modern equivalent of this cry is "The system is down!" Miss Manners has seen such a cry terrify whole crowds of people who weren't using the system because they hadn't yet figured it out.
Nevertheless, a personal-computer problem is just that -- personal. So it does not come under the etiquette rules of group disasters, in which voicing community despair is a mutually rewarding activity, sometimes to the exclusion of any activity that might actually return things to normal.
The rules that apply have to do with individually suffered physical and emotional difficulties. That is, although one may call for emergency assistance when it is needed, the conditions under which one may properly enlist a sympathetic ear are strictly limited.
You may tell your troubles only to someone who has demonstrated a genuine interest in your welfare, or who has shared the experience and shows a willingness to discuss it. Even then, confidences must be given in doses, with a watch being kept to see when sympathies are being overstrained.
Anyone who has to be grabbed by the elbow and held is not a proper candidate to be told one's troubles. Nor are casual acquaintances, especially those who are trying to work.
"How are you?" is not considered a sufficient opener to justify a 45-minute delineation of the particulars.
"Call me any time you need me" is not a statement to be taken literally, unless one understands that "need" is something that can be invoked only extremely rarely. A need to talk during normal sleeping hours (as opposed to a need to be driven to the hospital) should occur no more than one time during an entire intimate friendship.
The personal service of listening to troubles requires compensation in kind (which is one reason that people in chronic distress resort to professional help). Although the exchange need not be at the same session but can even out over a period of time, recitals of woe should always be accompanied, eventually, by "But how are you?"
Fellow sufferers are good candidates, which is why support groups were invented, but their good will is all the more dependent on having a turn themselves.
Miss Manners was lucky. She caught herself in an etiquette clampdown before she had spilled all the details (leaving a few kind souls who had heard of the disk disaster to believe that she had hurt her back). And she found a dear friend whose hard disk had crashed two days previously. And oh, yes, she got the silly thing replaced.
My husband (of one year) carries in his wallet only one photo -- a picture of himself flanked by two young women, with the sides of their faces pressed adoringly against his.
He claims that my irritation about this is ridiculous and old-fashioned, as they are "just good friends" from his past. His defense is that he doesn't have a wallet-sized photo of me.
I feel that not only is this improper for a married man, but it shows disrespect for me. Am I overreacting? Do I need to loosen up, as he claims?
It is kind of your husband not to suggest this, but Miss Manners believes you should tighten up, by getting out of your husband's wallet. Nice, old-fashioned couples allow one another some privacy, and Miss Manners trusts you would not care to have your husband rifling your purse for signs of respect toward him.
But is it possible that the solution to the absence of your picture is not apparent to you? In return for pointing out that your next present to your husband should be a wallet-sized photograph of yourself with both an adoring look and an adoring inscription, Miss Manners asks you to promise not to keep checking to see what he does with it.