Dear Miss Manners: I am a 22-year-old college student. To avoid having student loans, I work hard and don't have a lot of funds left over after paying for tuition. Thus, my wardrobe is not exactly high-end. My clothes are always clean and neat, but admittedly my winter coat is showing a lot of wear and tear.
At the beginning of a recent class, my professor told the class (of 12 students) that before we began, someone had a special announcement. Another student pulled out a gift bag, and presented me with a new coat that the entire class had pitched in to buy for me.
She gave a little speech about how some are less fortunate than others, and those who are in a better position want to be a blessing. Several students and my professor were videoing the whole thing on their phones.
After turning crimson from embarrassment, I said "thank you," then welled up with tears. I think they thought I was crying because I was so touched, but actually I was humiliated. I had never felt so ashamed in my whole life.
They were all so happy and cheering. I just wanted to run out of the classroom, but I stayed until the end of the session, then made a quick exit. I heard that several classmates posted the video on social media.
How should I respond to this? How do I thank them when I am not at all thankful for their embarrassing me? And do I have to wear this coat to class now? They, of course, will notice if I don't. It is a nice coat, but I'm embarrassed.
We have to suppose that they meant well, but this is what Miss Manners would call selfish charity.
The coarsening of society, where solvent people are shameless about asking for money — as presents or outright funding — has made them insensitive to feelings of self-respect and pride. They cannot imagine that anyone wouldn’t be thrilled to get something free.
So you must explain. This is, in fact, a class, so teaching a lesson is warranted.
They will be expecting a torrent of gratitude, so you must begin by acknowledging their good intentions. Then ask them to please take down the video, because it embarrasses you.
Then you must counter assumptions that you are being modest, and explain how you really feel. Miss Manners suggests something like this:
“I believe in charity, and I recognize your charitable motive. Thank you for worrying about me, but I am not a charity case. I am not as well-off or as well-dressed as the rest of you, but I have my pride. I hope you will understand why I cannot accept this.”
Then you could add, “I will be donating this coat to a homeless shelter, and I will do so anonymously, so as not to embarrass anyone.” Or, if you want to keep the coat: “I will be putting aside money until I am able to pay your kindness forward by donating the amount to the truly needy.”
New Miss Manners columns are posted Monday through Saturday on washingtonpost.com/advice. You can send questions to Miss Manners at her website, missmanners.com. You can also follow her @RealMissManners.
2021, by Judith Martin