Dear Miss Manners:

In December of last year I was in New York City, and went with some friends to see the World Trade Center site. It was a moving experience, and afterward we recouped our spirits at the nearest coffee shop. Waiting in line ahead of us was a New York City firefighter in full gear, obviously on a short break from his work at the site.

I was seized with the impulse to buy the man a latte. However, I could think of no way to do this gracefully. He was ahead of me in line, and so I could not dart ahead and slap money down on the counter.

As a woman, I know precisely what to do if a strange man should offer to buy me a beverage at a bar (if asked, decline with thanks; if the drink just appears at my table, convey fulsome thanks via the waiter but leave promptly). But there seemed to be no way to reverse-engineer this knowledge. In the end, I timidly did nothing.

What should I have done? None of the alternatives -- buy a fistful of gift certificates and thrust them at uniformed persons, write a check to one of the WTC charities -- seems quite satisfactory.

This is a fascinating example of how the changing circumstances of social context affect etiquette.

Your interpretation of offering to buy a stranger's drink as being an overture to, ah, courtship, was valid before the attack. In the months following, however, the motive of wanting simply to thank Ground Zero workers was universally recognized. You could simply have marched to the counter and said, "I'd like to buy the brave firefighter a latte," put down your money, and returned to your place in line. Miss Manners promises you that the firefighter would not have protested, "But I'm a married man!"

Dear Miss Manners:

I have decided to cut someone out of my social circle. It's nothing that that person has done, and I like her very much, but I've come to feel that there are some very fundamental differences between us, and to continue association with her will only hurt us more in the long run. I drifted away from her a few months ago, saying I needed some time and space, and have found that life without her has been much more restful.

Does etiquette mandate that I tell her what I'm doing? I don't want to hurt her feelings, but have no interest in resuming our former friendship. Should I just remain quiet and distant or do I owe her some explanation (which could get me sucked back into everything I was escaping from)?

Etiquette mandates that you do not tell her what you are doing, much less why. It knows no way of saying "Life is more pleasant without you" that spares the feelings of the person in question. Miss Manners is afraid that you will have to do this the traditional way, by claiming to be too busy to see her.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

(c)2002, Judith Martin