Say something nice; make someone feel bad.
Miss Manners would have thought this a difficult combination to pull off. Insults are easy and, she regrets to say, plentiful. There is general agreement about what constitutes a negative attribute, and the insulter has only to name it. As reinforcement, there is the sneer with which insults are delivered.
But compliments that leave their targets miffed and their givers bewildered are also plentiful. They just require a bit more thoughtlessness.
Guessing about the situation being admired is almost a sure method:
"I see you're pregnant -- congratulations!"
"What an adorable child. You must be the proud grandfather."
"Is that your girlfriend?"
"I bet you're the smartest one in your class."
"You must be making a fortune to afford that."
Almost as effective is asking:
"Your hair is such a beautiful color. Is it dyed?"
"Where'd you get that darling baby? He doesn't look anything like you."
"Wow, your performance was amazing. Do they check for steroids?"
"I bet all the boys are after you -- so how come you're not married yet?"
Other comments that are intended to pass for compliments backfire because they are based on erroneous ideas of shared assumptions.
Gentlemen have had a hard time getting over the notion that all ladies liked to be praised for their looks and clothes, by anyone and under any circumstances. Their wives and daughters appreciate this, so why do ladies at work -- or strangers on the street -- take offense at being similarly appraised, so long as the judgment is favorable?
Ladies have a hard time believing that other ladies do not want their weight favorably appraised. Being told that they have lost weight is no delight for people who have illnesses they don't care to discuss, thought they looked all right before or just don't like the idea of being monitored.
Both genders have trouble believing that there is anyone over the age of 18 who is not flattered to be taken for someone younger, however unbelievably. Professionals are told they look too young to hold their jobs, parents that they are too young to have children of the age that they clearly do, partners that one of them is too young for the other, and the elderly that they couldn't possibly be the age they claim.
Another general belief is that everyone is proud of his or her shopping skills and financial resources, so that approving comments on possessions are always in order, and may be followed by "Where'd you get that?" and "How much was it?"
Finally, there is the assumption that it is satisfying to arouse envy. This accounts for the number of people who believe that it is a compliment to mention good fortune and then say, "and I hate you."
All these people plead that they are "just trying to be nice," which is what Miss Manners keeps urging them to do. Perhaps she forgot to specify that it should be the kind of niceness that does not leave others feeling worse.
Dear Miss Manners:
On only a few days' notice, I was married in February to a wonderful woman. Having not had time to properly invite friends and family to our nuptials, and since we already had been living together for 14 years, we didn't expect to receive gifts.
Nevertheless, we did receive many wonderful cards and calls of congratulations, and a few relatives did send us thoughtful gifts. Of course we promptly wrote them thank-you notes and telephoned them to show our sincere appreciation. Unfortunately, a decision by the California Supreme Court voided our marriage, along with the marriages of approximately 4,000 other same-gender couples.
What is the proper etiquette with respect to keeping or returning these special gifts now that the court has forced us to untie the knot?
Wedding presents may be properly accepted during the couple's engagement, and need only be returned if they no longer wish to be married. You have, after all, met Miss Manners's basic and non-negotiable requirement: You wrote thank-you letters.
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