Dear Miss Manners:
I feel frustrated when I make a request of friends or co-workers, and they answer my question in a vague manner, avoid answering the question altogether or even sometimes say yes, and then back out at the last minute with an excuse like they did not have enough time to fulfill the request.
It seems pretty clear to me that sometimes people simply do not want to honor a request made of them but do not respond in an honest manner. I feel it is okay to decline the request of a friend or colleague, so I do not understand why people just don't say no in the first place.
Is telling a person "no" in nonverbal communication more appropriate than straightforward communication? Is indirect communication more appropriate than direct communication in professional and personal relationships?
In some societies, it is. Elaborate conventions exist to enable people to field or ignore a request so as to make clear that it has been refused--while also conveying how much pain it costs to refuse.
We don't go in for that sort of subtlety; we pride ourselves on our frankness. Yet Miss Manners is amazed and touched that in a society that suffers from only-too-straightforward communication, often in the form of a raised finger, many people still feel it is rude to refuse any request. Also, they think they have to supply an excuse, which will lead into a tangle of implausible lies.
So they hedge. As you have noticed, this causes more trouble to those who mistakenly think their requests have been granted than if they were refused outright.
The polite way to refuse is to precede the denial with an apology but no excuse: "Oh, I'm terribly sorry, but I can't." "I'd love to, but I'm afraid it's impossible." "Unfortunately, I can't, but I hope you can find someone."
It is not more polite to say, "Well, sure, if I can finish up my other stuff and I don't have another assignment, only my stepson may be in town then and I'm having trouble with my car, so I don't know."
Dear Miss Manners:
I am not sure if I should be writing to you or to the local police, but anyway, my wife has an ongoing compulsion to transfer small amounts of napkins at a time from fast food restaurants to our glove compartment. What do you think of this practice?
At first, I was going to anonymously send $5 to each restaurant (and not make an issue of it) but maybe it would be better to simply tell her that if she is going to continue to do this that I am not going to accompany her.
Why miss the opportunity? While she is busy emptying one napkin holder to fill your glove compartment, you could be filling another napkin holder from what you find in your glove compartment.
Miss Manners does not take a lighthearted approach to petty larceny. She shares your judgment that your wife is stealing, and feels the same way about those who help themselves to the supplies of their employers or argue that hotels and restaurants expect and even want customers to take anything small and portable.
Considering that we are talking about your wife, however, she is presuming that you are more interested in reform than punishment. If the mere fact that you consider it immoral does not carry weight with her, you might make the point by presenting her with a huge supply of paper napkins that you come by honestly.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.