"I'll scrub floors before I'll accept charity."
"We may be poor, but we have our pride."
"I've always been independent, and I always will be."
"Thank you, but I wouldn't dream of taking your money. I'm sure I'll manage."
"I may not be legally responsible, but I consider this a debt of honor, and I'll pay off every cent if I die in the attempt."
"I don't accept tips."
When -- if ever -- was the last time you heard any of these statements? The young must think that allowing pride to trump avarice dates back to a long-past age of romance and stupidity.
Miss Manners is not exactly complaining that she misses what were, after all, responses to difficult, perhaps tragic circumstances. But she sorely misses the quaint attitude they represented. The rapidity with which begging and bankruptcy shed any sense of shame and took on an air of insouciant cleverness astonishes her.
In the social realm, pleading financial need and requesting assistance have become so commonplace that the techniques are cited as "traditional" by the clueless, as well as by the financially irresponsible. Not a day goes by that Miss Manners doesn't receive several questions about how to do something -- throw a party, take a trip, buy household items, entertain in a restaurant -- that the writer states being unable to afford.
Various schemes are proposed, with the expectation that Miss Manners will explain the proper way to do them. How do you politely tell your guests to give you money so you can buy what you want? What is the correct wording to invite people while letting them know that they are supposed to pay? How do you graciously state your desire that guests contribute payments toward your vacation or house?
Miss Manners's favorite Scheme of the Week is a postal card sent to members of a church congregation asking them to celebrate the marriage of their pastor with "monetary gifts for the honeymoon. If you like, do it anonymously to eliminate the need for thank-you cards."
She can't wait to hear his sermon about how charity begins at home. Or the one on offering thanks.
Nevertheless, Miss Manners saw it all coming. Once the commercial gift registry (originally kept only in case customers inquired about a bride's silver or china pattern) expanded to put generosity under the control of its beneficiary, the rest was inevitable. Stripping sentiment from the custom of giving presents naturally prompted the question of why the giver should be entrusted -- or encumbered, depending on the degree of hypocrisy exercised -- with the purchasing.
The next step was for the recipient to examine the overhead costs involved in entertaining the donors, which would have to be subtracted from the take. Prospective guests often ask Miss Manners whether etiquette requires that the cost of a present be dictated not by their resources or impulses, but by the amount spent on their food and drink. Hosts, especially those who like to entertain at places that they are the first to admit they cannot afford, are inclined to see these as two different obligations, and ask how to explain that the guests should both pay their own way and give a (directed) present.
But why bother with guests at all? The virtual community is larger and less troublesome than the relatives and friends upon whom self-fundraisers had been drawing. The pioneers in asking strangers on the Internet for money patterned themselves on the causes of reputable charity -- such as donating toward education or helping the ill -- except for designating themselves the sole beneficiaries. A breakthrough was achieved last year when it was discovered that asking for money for luxuries also brought results.
Miss Manners fails to understand why philanthropists would turn from the needy to the greedy, but she is not opposed to enterprise. She only wants to make it clear that none of this has the least bit to do with etiquette, and she is not in the business of laundering rudeness to make it seem so.
These practices are no less vulgar for having become commonplace. There is no polite way to tell people to give you money or objects, and no polite way to entertain people at their expense. Begging is the last resort of the desperate, not a social form for those who want to live beyond their means.
Dear Miss Manners:
I am a junior at my local high school and as a junior I am permitted to go to Junior Prom. I wish to take a young man I know, who does not go to my school.
Who pays for the tickets? Do I, because I go to the school that is hosting this prom? Does he, because he is the young man? Or do we split it evenly between us, so as to be fair?
Miss Manners regrets to inform you that splitting the cost of the tickets is not fair. What is fair -- and has always been considered so, as generations of graduates from female educational institutions can attest -- is for the person who issued the invitation to bear the cost. That gentlemen once issued more invitations than ladies cannot be used as an excuse to reduce a hostess's expenses.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.(c)2003, Judith Martin