"But what about me?" is not a thought that can be easily held while maintaining a socially presentable facial expression.
The lower lip ventures out and the eyes narrow. This is a peculiarly unpleasant combination, lacking both the pathos of sorrow and the strength of anger.
And it overcomes some people just when their faces are supposed to be glowing with vicarious pleasure in someone else's good fortune. A friend or a relative gets engaged or promoted, or receives an honor or expects a baby. Others are making a great fuss about it. In their midst, however, one who seemed fine before this, or at least reconciled to fate, and who is supposed to be joining the rejoicing, is nursing a sense of the injustice of the world.
It can even be ill fortune that leads to this reaction, if that has garnered flurries of sympathy. In that case, "Why did this happen to him and not to me?" is replaced with "Why are they making so much over his problem when I have suffered so much worse?"
Or it can focus on a more immediate claim to injustice: "Why is she getting all the attention when I contributed, too?"
This condition is reported to Miss Manners by the people who find it welling up in them -- yet they suspect that it is not quite nice. They may have made an effort to conceal how they felt. Still, it rankles, and they are hoping that Miss Manners can tell them a polite way of calling attention to the injustice they perceive.
A lady who feels "insignificant" because her husband's school friends refer to "John's wedding" and "John's house" proposes saying, "with a smile and a laugh, 'I was at the wedding, too, and I put too much planning and money into it not to have my name attached to it' or 'Well, I think I live here, too,' " but acknowledges that she might sound curt.
A gentleman whose wife alone received flowers after the birth of their baby, from the office where they both work, asks if he has to "grin and bear it, or is some subtle polite way of letting them know that I was offended" available, because although "she was the one who did most of the work, I feel like I deserve some of the credit for the creation of our beautiful daughter."
A lady whose in-laws proposed giving her husband a surprise 40th birthday party with no mention of her own 40th birthday, three days earlier, is afraid that she will have "to plaster a smile on my face and not say anything, because I don't want to start a big fight and spoil my husband's party."
Yes, but even the quality of these laughs, grins and smiles frightens Miss Manners. She could propose jokes ("It was a great wedding, and I was so happy to be able to be there"; "I couldn't have done this without her"; "I'm so glad you're no longer too young for me"), but knows that pouters will not be able to pull them off.
Relief lies only in learning to enjoy other people's pleasure, most especially when the other people are spouses. As for the generalists who feel slighted when anyone at all has a wedding, birthday or baby, their only hope is to realize that the amount of happiness in the world is not finite. Other people's happiness does not detract from theirs, it only adds to the amount of happiness in the world.
Dear Miss Manners:
I'm hoping that you will be able to tell me if it is ever okay to tell someone they are being rude?
No, because that would be rude. OOOPS!
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) 2004, Judith Martin