"But wait -- you haven't signed the guest book. You can't go until you've written a little something in our guest book."
Miss Manners cannot be the only person in whose bosom these words strike fear. At the conclusion of a perfectly nice, perhaps even lovely, visit, the host bears down with book and pen, cheerily demanding a few well-chosen words that will capture the occasion with wit and charm.
Like what, for example?
"Thanks for a great weekend"?
"We had a terrific time"?
"Good luck at college, love ya"?
Oh, wait, that last one was in the high school yearbook. And at least copies of that quickly find their way to oblivion in the owners' parents' attics.
In the years following, nothing more dangerous than a sign-in book at a wedding or funeral, or perhaps a log at a B&B, is likely to present itself. Names and addresses are pretty much all that is required, with, at most -- if one lacks the foresight to make the signature fill the entire available space -- a word or two of congratulation, sympathy or thanks.
And so the scary memory of being expected to produce an aphorism on the spot fades -- until one day, when one is halfway out of someone's else's door, the command is issued. Your apparently genial host has revealed himself as someone who keeps a guest book.
Mind you, Miss Manners has no trouble producing an ingratiating summary of a visit when she arrives home and writes a letter of thanks. Not much additional time has passed since her exit from the scene of hospitality, but it is enough to allow her impressions to form themselves into something gracious. A freshly worded paragraph can be fashioned from one or two particulars of the event, and then adding a gracious generalization about the host is all that is required. Her strict injunction to write such letters immediately after the visit is made with the knowledge that the longer one waits, the harder it gets -- and the less likely it is to be done at all.
But there is such a thing as too early. That is when the intended recipient is standing there looking expectant. You are going to have to see his expression when he reads what you write. Furthermore, you know that future guests will be reading it, too, because you skipped furtively through the back pages, for inspiration and to buy time.
There is no use asking, "What shall I write?" because the answer is almost always "Oh, whatever comes to mind." And when it's not, it is because the exercise has been made even more terrifying, and guests are asked to write a poem or draw a picture. A gentleman of Miss Manners's acquaintance has made it somewhat easier by requesting a recipe, although he does specify that they be food or drink -- "no recipes for a happy life." Even those who have never entered a kitchen can come up with instructions for mixing gin and vermouth or unwrapping a candy bar.
In other cases, the rule is that it is generally safer to be gracious than original.
Dear Miss Manners :
I have recently moved to the West Coast, and a question that frequently arises is, "Where are you from?" People sometimes recognize the name of the small East Coast town, and respond with some variation of "You must be rich!"
I find that being labeled a rich person (which, sadly, I am not) makes me feel awkward about how to continue the conversation. It doesn't really seem a compliment, so "Thank you" seems inappropriate.
A protestation of "No, no!" even with a laugh, leads to a steadily more undignified wrangling about how much money I must have, how much houses cost in the town, etc. I have tried to answer simply with the state, but most people press for the specific town, saying that they're familiar with the state's geography. A raised eyebrow or an "I beg your pardon" makes me feel as though I am acting the part of a rich snob. What is the proper response to such a verbalized presumption?
"I would be, if I had a nickel for all you folks out here who believe that."
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