"Nobody writes letters anymore" is a refrain that Miss Manners has been hearing for years. But it seems that now they do -- and warm, personal letters at that -- when the occasion is important enough.
When would that be?
When a friend has died? Well, no. Surely an e-mail is enough then, Gentle Readers have tried (with remarkable lack of success) to convince Miss Manners. The important thing is for the bereaved to know that you're there for them, they argue, and e-mail is the quickest and therefore the most meaningful way.
No, the way to "be there" for them is to go there. Paying condolence calls is not a dead custom among the compassionate.
Neither is the handwritten letter of condolence, containing kind words about the deceased as well as sympathy for the survivors. Sympathy cards are nothing more than preprinted form letters. E-mail may have more content, but it is a breezy way of dismissing a solemn occurrence. You might just as well add a smiley face symbol at the end in hopes of spreading cheer.
Do people write personal letters when they are unable to attend a wedding or graduation to which they have been invited?
Certainly not. The hosts are lucky if the invited even answer the invitations, much less express their congratulations. All they want to know is whether they owe a present, the demand for goods being one of the few social moves that is taken seriously, if resentfully. They have not incurred such a debt, but the idea of another response -- wishing their friends happiness on important occasions, which costs only a stamp -- seldom occurs to anyone.
Similarly, dinner and overnight guests neglect their duty to write appreciative letters because they feel they have already paid their debt with the grocery or bottle they handed over at the door.
It can be argued that e-mail has kept alive the tradition of the chatty letter written on no special occasion, and indeed, e-mail is a marvelous way to say nothing in particular. But it won't do for the deeply emotional declaration where one feels moved to pour out one's heart to another.
The incentive for doing that is nothing less than passion. These days, that does not mean the passing passions people might feel for each other, for which text messaging is considered enough.
It is passion for real estate. Competition for buying property in a sellers' market has apparently spurred prospective buyers to epistolary competition. Real estate agents have been known to advise this, along with such other personal gestures as presents and invitations, as a way to charm the seller into taking the writer's money.
This is yet another manifestation of the theory on which the entertainment expense account is based: that people will put aside their business interests if flattered into making an apparent social connection.
The premise here is that selling one's house is somewhat like putting a child out for adoption. One would want to feel that one was turning it over to warm people who will take loving care of it. It turns out to be a faulty analogy. People who are selling their houses may form retroactive attachments to them, but they are usually moving on, emotionally as well as literally, and inclined to value money over charm in a buyer.
Oh, well. Writing those letters about how close they are with their children and their pets, and how attached they are to the simple attractions of house and garden, are good practice. Surely there is an old friend or relative who would be happy to receive one.
Dear Miss Manners:
What rules of etiquette, if any, govern the use of a drinking straw? I know straws aren't exactly part of a proper place setting, but they are continually offered at dining and drinking establishments, and in some cases they are convenient to use. Other than the obvious suggestion -- don't slurp or blow bubbles! -- how can I avoid looking childish or uncouth while drinking from a straw?
Let's see. If it is wrapped and you tear off one end and blow the paper in your sister's face, that would be childish. So is putting it up your nose.
Otherwise, you just need to bring the drink up to your mouth, rather than leaning down to it, and to refrain from unnecessary noises. And Miss Manners begs to differ with you about the slurps, as she permits three relatively discreet ones at the end of an ice cream soda.
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) 2005, Judith Martin