(EDITORS Please be advised that the third paragraph of this column contains the word “sluts.” We apologize for any inconvenience.)
Mindful of etiquette's injunction to please others, nice people have trouble saying no. This is a good way to get a bad reputation.
Miss Manners knows, because she has one. Not personally, of course, because she says "No, thank you" so touchingly that petitioners pity her for being unable to comply with their demands. It is etiquette itself that has a bad reputation, stemming from the mistaken belief that it requires a perpetual sacrifice of one's own wishes and judgment in favor of others'. As the naive invariably put it, "Isn't etiquette always a matter of making other people feel comfortable?"
This would make politeness an activity exclusively for suckers and wimps. And, of course, sluts.
In fact, etiquette has no such requirement. The mistake arises from the fact that etiquette does recognize that one has duties toward others, which is why it will not put up with such duty-dodging attempts as "Why should I thank Grandma for the check just because she wants me to?" And it does require being polite to others, even when they are not role models themselves.
But that is a far cry from declaring that courtesy means taking everybody else's orders. And orders are being issued constantly, now that reticence and modesty are no longer considered the virtues they once were. From the selfish and the philanthropic alike, we are bombarded with requests to do, donate, attend, volunteer, eat, drink and buy.
With the strongest of wills, the biggest of purses, and the freest of schedules, one could never fulfill all these orders. And much as Miss Manners appreciates any inhibitions at all that are inspired by courtesy, she hopes that people will make these important choices with more discrimination than is involved in surrendering whenever they happen to be cornered.
This is why the ability to say no politely is an essential social skill. All that is really needed is the ability to repeat "No, thank you," interspersed with such small politenesses as "I'm so sorry" and "You're kind to ask" and "I wish you luck."
Elaborating is what gets people into trouble. Excuses that are false are traps one sets for oneself, but even true excuses encourage the audacious to argue: "Can't you do that another night?" "One little piece of cake isn't going to kill you." "But this helps more people."
Yet most people can't help blabbing on to soften the "no," which is apt to be so softened as to give way. So here is a small supply of supplementary sentences:
"I'm afraid I'm not taking on anything else right now."
"Sorry, I never discuss my finances."
"I'm sure it's wonderful, but I'm not going to have any."
"We never go to balls, but we'd love to see you privately."
"I'm so sorry, but that's not something I can help you with."
"If you care to send me some written material, I'll get in touch if I find it interests me."
"I didn't realize what this involved, and I think I'd better bow out."
And the ultimately correct, no-excuses refusal:
"Dr. Peony Wiley
regrets that she is unable to accept
the exceedingly kind invitation of
Mr. and Mrs. Popinjay
for Saturday, the first of June"
DEAR MISS MANNERS: How does one deal with an ex? When I see him in public, he feels the need to come up to me and give me a hug. I do not wish to shake his hand much less hug him.
What should one do when placed in such a situation? I feel it inappropriate to pretend that I want to continue a friendship with this person. How does one convey that message without being hurtful?
GENTLE READER: There is no way around the fact that it is hurtful to be rejected as a friend -- especially by someone who knows you only too well yet refers to you as "this person."
So Miss Manners suggests you refrain from adding public humiliation to the rejection. If you can't bring yourself to shake his hand or offer a non-touching air kiss to avoid the appearance of being enemies, ask him in private to offer you a more restrained greeting.