DEAR MISS MANNERS: In our increasingly high-tech world, it's become easier than ever to keep up with the events in the lives of people one has known, even if one has fallen out of touch with the actual person. I hope you can help me understand what the rules of etiquette are in these situations.
Specifically, I'm referring to the practice of "Googling" others; that is, typing someone's name into an Internet search engine and seeing what entries result from the search.
Recently, I came across information that a high school classmate and friend, whom I haven't spoken with in years, recently lost his wife, whom I did not know. This information prompted a flurry of searches, and I discovered that another classmate has also passed away, and a third has been jailed for repeated alcohol-impaired driving offenses.
How does one (indeed, should one) admit to having this information, without causing undue distress?
I would like to contact my old friend whose wife died to express my sympathy, but I simply don't know how to initiate the contact. It seems one thing to say, "I was talking with Christine, who told me about your wife. I'm so sorry for your loss," while it's quite another to admit that I came by the information through a practice that's not far removed from stalking. What would Miss Manners do?
GENTLE READER: What she is doing at the moment is wondering whether this matter will always be considered delicate, or is, even now, other than by you and Miss Manners.
It is true that, as a people, we are fiercely protective of our privacy. But that is only to make others stop bothering us while the population is busy posting everything it does, thinks or feels, accompanied by pictures, on its personal Web sites.
Perhaps not in the situations you mention, however. Presumably, people do not post their own arrests, deaths and bereavements. Yet these are matters of public record, and there are many ways you could have found out about them.
How you actually did is not that important. You need only begin your letter to your friend who lost his wife -- and the survivor of your other classmate, should you be prompted to send condolences -- with "I was so sorry to learn of your loss."
As for your other unfortunate classmate, Miss Manners suggests checking his Web site and your school's self-submitted alumni notes, and offering sympathy only if it appears to be solicited by his telling his version of what happened.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I received an invitation to a party whose purpose was to meet a candidate for a soon-to-be-elected office. It was given by the candidate, a person I do not know and will not be supporting.
At the bottom of the "party" invitation, it said "Regrets only." Although I did not plan to go, I did not reply. I did not feel I could have a comfortable telephone conversation with this person I do not know and will not support. Was this impolite?
GENTLE READER: The social rules that pertain to offers of hospitality from friends do not apply to offers from strangers attempting to extract an advantage for themselves. Had you telephoned, Miss Manners feels sure that you would have encountered -- depending on the size of the office -- either a staff member mechanically recording replies or a desperately pleading candidate. You may consider that you saved them trouble.