An apparent dearth of support groups has led to a deplorable state: Citizens now commonly accost strangers for reasons other than to commit armed robbery and be done with it. They just want company.

Miss Manners, who believes that each citizen has a right to a health plan, a book discussion club and a support group, is therefore stepping forward to propose a version of the last. As it has crucial differences from those already popular, she finds it difficult to explain. It can't be put as simply as, for example, "This is for people who have lost a spouse through carelessness in mega-shopping malls," or, "It's for people who can't stop playing solitaire on the computer even for meals, their weddings and quitting time."

Perhaps if Miss Manners describes typical members of the group she suggests, it will become obvious what they have in common and why they find meetings helpful.

Perhaps one member of the group might be blind and one might have breast cancer or Parkinson's disease, but it would probably happen that most of them would have no permanent disabilities or ailments. There would be single people, among them the divorced, the widowed and the never-married, and there would be married couples.

Different occupations would be represented, and some would not have paying jobs, either through choice or happenstance. Some would have children, some not, some grandchildren as well, because they would be of different ages and even generations. Therefore some are likely to have aging parents, and some to be aging parents, although probably not to anyone in the group.

Sometimes, they might all meet together, but if there are a great many, they probably meet in changing subgroups of smaller numbers, except on special occasions. Anyone can call a meeting, with a format ranging from a full evening for several to a meal or walk with just one other.

A member can always introduce a newcomer, but it is understood that part of the responsibility is observing whether that person seems to get along well with others before inviting that person again. Once one becomes a regular member, it is expected that membership will continue through life, although those who lose interest may simply drift away without explanation.

The rules are not explicit, but it is understood that hosting is roughly shared, and that no one person should dominate a meeting. There are no monologues, because everyone present is expected to participate. People occasionally disagree, but they are required to be civil.

What do these people get together to discuss?

Anything they please, as long as it seems to engage the others. What they have most in common is an interest in others and a taste for conversation.

Although the tone is generally supposed to be cheerful, members can bring up their problems, making it clear whether they are in search only of sympathy or also of advice. Because the members don't all share a specific trouble and are not at the same stage in life, they are often able to provide a variety of perspectives. Perhaps the biggest help is knowing that there are people who are both supportive and loyal, through good times and bad.

Such groups are not actually new, Miss Manners confesses. They were around long before the invention of support groups. They are known simply as circles of friends.

Dear Miss Manners:

When a person returns my business call to them, which one of us is to initiate the closing? Do I, since I was originally calling them, or do they, since they are only returning a call that I initiated?

I have consulted business etiquette books and called business professors at a local university. No one seems to know the answer to this often uncomfortable and clumsy position.

In these brusque and hurried times, Miss Manners is charmed to hear of business people's hanging onto telephone calls long after the reason that prompted them is concluded, for fear of seeming abrupt.

Nevertheless, she can't have commerce grinding to a halt. The person who initiated the transaction is responsible for bringing it to a close. Those who fail to do so in a reasonable amount of time may be asked politely if there is anything more that needs to be settled.

(c) 1999, Judith Martin