"What should I get you?"
"What can I bring?"
"Is there anything I can do?"
Such open-ended generosity has the odd effect of creating consternation -- but only, Miss Manners has observed, among polite people. Anyone else sees only that relatives, friends and acquaintances are coming forward, of their own free will, to offer presents, contributions and services, so eager to please that they are asking the beneficiaries to dictate the specifics.
Yet cashing them would require the well-mannered to violate modesty, hospitality and a reluctance to impose upon others. So they murmur bashfully:
"Oh, please don't get me anything -- really, I have everything I could possibly want."
"Just bring yourselves."
"No, no, we're fine, thanks. I promise I'll call if we need any help."
Miss Manners notices that people who are unencumbered by those pesky virtues have no such trouble. Instead of shilly-shallying around, they answer the questions at face value:
"What I really need now is not a lot of stuff, but help in paying off some debts."
"Why don't you make those fancy hors d'oeuvres you had at your party? Or, if you don't have time, you could just bring the liquor. It'll be for somewhere between 30 and 50 people."
"Well, the house is a mess, and with everything going on, I just haven't been in the mood to clean it."
It's not that they don't have an urge to be kind to people who are so ready to serve them. It is just that the form this takes is different. People who do not practice social reciprocity (because even these tasks might reasonably be begged of someone for whom one performs comparable ones) argue that they are doing their would-be benefactors a favor by taking them at their word. If those people didn't enjoy giving and serving, they wouldn't have asked. As an added delicacy, this saves the benefactors the onerous task of guessing how best to serve, and the embarrassment of guessing wrong.
If this weren't consideration enough, many would-be beneficiaries are now also saving others the trouble of volunteering by listing demands -- whether directly or through Web sites, gift registries and notations on invitations -- without waiting to be asked.
This is not good for the etiquette business.
It is all very smart to sneer at the notion that it is the thought that counts, brazenly declaring that no, it's the take that counts. But the whole symbolic basis of exchanging presents, hospitality and favors refers to our longing to be noticed thoughtfully by others.
True, the possibility of error is always there, which is why etiquette allows thoughtfulness to be assisted by sneaky tactics.
If observation fails to suggest what presents might be welcome, it is fair to ask people who are in a better position to observe. So if you don't know what to get your faraway nephew, you ask his parents what his current interests are and whether there is a particular item they might suggest.
Guests are not expected to contribute to other people's dinner parties, so if they want to bring something, it should be flowers, candy or some treat that can be enjoyed by the hosts later.
To offer a service, one should name something specific, such as "There'll be a lot of people calling to ask about the funeral -- let me stay and answer the telephone" or "I can take the dog while you're in the hospital" or "I'd like to drop off some meals you can just heat."
If all of these are rejected, it becomes possible to say, in a tone of fond exasperation, "Well, I want to do something, so you'll have to tell me what." Only then can the polite beneficiary admit defeat and say, "Well, if you really insist..."
DEAR MISS MANNERS: When on an airplane, where is the proper place to change a baby's diaper? A bathroom, seat area, or ???
GENTLE READER: Where is "???"?
The cockpit is locked these days, so that is out of the question. Miss Manners will do you the courtesy of assuming that you do not have your eye on the galley from which food is served.
This leaves the seat area, which would disgust everyone for rows around you, and the bathroom, which would then be tied up as others are waiting to use it. The latter is definitely the lesser of the evils. Other passengers may be able to find another bathroom, but they cannot disembark from a cabin that you have turned into one.