Homeowners are familiar with the Pity Story as a method of explaining why a contracted service has not been performed. Their indignation dissolves into embarrassment when the response to an angry and anguished complaint ("It's been three weeks since you promised you would be here to fix it!") is not an apology or a renewed promise, but a reciprocal dose of anguish.

It seems that the person being importuned, whom they know only as the representative of a business that has failed to live up to its obligations, has a seriously ill child or is mourning a parent. Who would not be ashamed to be carrying on about some mere commercial service in the face of stark human tragedy?

Miss Manners can tell you who: the customer who has heard similar stories too often, perhaps even from the same source.

After a while, even emotional pushovers find their hearts hardening. One does not have to be so cynical as to assume that anyone whose work commitments are perpetually thwarted by life's cruelty might be less than completely honest. One can simply reflect that the constant victim of unforeseen circumstances is never going to fix your sink, so you might as well contract the work to someone who is on better terms with the fates.

Clearly, something new was needed. The Pity Story was ceasing to work.

Miss Manners is able to report a triumph of business ingenuity. A new version of the Pity Story has been developed to replace the worn-out one.

Furthermore, the distribution method is amazingly efficient. When she first heard it, she thought it was a brilliant improvisation on the part of the person who used it on her. But all she had to do was to mention it, in order to hear reports from others who had had the same technique used on them by different businesses. Here is how it works:

Customer: Six weeks ago, you replaced one of my fan units for $1,800, and one of your people stepped on two of our air ducts and flattened them, and you still haven't been out to fix them, and we've been calling and calling.

Manager: I know about it, but I don't have someone to send yet.

Customer: But we want it fixed before it gets hot.

Manager: Lady, you've got most of your air conditioning working. Some people don't have any. Don't you think they should come first?

Customer: But we have a service contract. And it was your people who caused the damage.

Manager: I've got a pregnant lady whose air conditioning is completely out. You want her to be sweltering in the heat?

What impresses Miss Manners is how skillfully the line of argument is switched. Having sold the customer a regular service contract, the business is now portraying itself as a rescue agency handling humanitarian emergencies.

Indeed, in hospitals and during times of widespread disaster, decent people sacrifice their own needs to those with more acute problems. So the fact that an ordinary business is admitting to being unable to meet its regular obligations to all its customers is lost, while one customer is being asked to judge which of them should get the service for which they have all paid. With any luck, the customer will be too cowed even to mention that it wasn't even hot out yet when the exchange was taking place.

Ever an admirer of rhetorical skill, Miss Manners was disappointed to hear that this performance was old by the time she heard it. If business consultants are teaching it, it is time for them to stop, she is afraid. Word has gotten around.

1999, Judith Martin