Now is the season to think of those more fortunate than ourselves.
At least so it appears from the flood of solicitations that are made toward the end of the year, requesting donations of money from those who are deemed to be such. Hardly anyone seems to be considered below the financial cutoff line for being importuned by friends, relatives, colleagues and strangers alike, through the mail, e-mail, the telephone and both door-to-door and desk-to-desk visits.
Collecting for charity is such a widespread activity that there are entire income brackets who depend upon it for a meal. Miss Manners is not referring to the poor, who can hardly consider such largesse dependable. She means that segment of the rich who give lavishly, but who expect something in return: not only a tax deduction, but a social life, complete with gift bags.
Miss Manners heartily supports charity, and, as in Victorian times, she expects good behavior in return. The difference is that the Victorians expected the objects of their charity to behave well. At best, this led to a lot of showy shuffling and at worst, it ruled out some of the needy on the basis of their neediness.
The good behavior Miss Manners expects is from those who collect for charity. She expects them to observe social decencies toward potential and repeat donors, and to not try to claim that violating etiquette is permitted "because it's for a good cause."
As they know, pity and shame are basic to the disposition to donate money. Pity for the plight of others and shame if one remains selfish. But what many charities prefer are the implied threat of social embarrassment and the enticement of social aggrandizement.
That people give to charity to get their names and reputations around is an occasionally amusing sport that Miss Manners considers unobjectionable. There are worse reputations for which to strive than that of philanthropist. There may be none better, although the difference between acquiring it through others' noticing one's deeds and through trumpeting it oneself is not a small one.
That people also give because they are embarrassed to say no to the particular person who asks is also effective, Miss Manners is aware. This is why charities send friends, neighbors, colleagues and children to do the asking. The onus then is on the prospective donor to weigh the factor of pleasing the importuner along with his interest in the cause and assessment of what he can spare.
It is invaluable to know that there is nothing rude about saying pleasantly, "Thank you, I'll pass on this." Really. Deciding where and how much to give is a serious responsibility of the giver, which should not be abandoned.
But the agents of charity often try -- indeed, are often instructed to try -- to engineer deeper embarrassment. Using such insidious techniques as familiarity with the income and possessions of the prospective donor to extract or raise the donation is a common -- and rude -- practice. Using a venue where cooperative behavior is expected, such as the workplace (especially when a higher-ranking person, or worse yet, a high-ranking person's child, does it) or a social occasion that the guests were not warned was for fund-raising are also rude.
What is fair, and more effective in the long run, is working up an impassioned speech about the goodness of the cause and the good that donations will do: wrenching the heart, rather than tweaking the ego.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: What are chocolate spoons? Are they for stirring hot chocolate (as teaspoons are for tea), or are they for eating chocolate desserts such as mousse or pots de creme? I have a chance to buy some in my pattern, but I am unsure as to their proper use. I even asked a good friend who is a former White House social secretary, and she's not sure.
GENTLE READER: Then she could not have worked for an 18th century administration, which was when chocolate became such a prized drink that it developed its own spoons, pots and cups. However, your other guess has some validity, as the hot chocolate of that time was so thick that it might well be mistaken for a pudding.
Chocolate spoons are short and round-bowled, but the pots and cups are tall and lack the bellies of coffee and teapots and cups. Miss Manners is afraid that the same cannot be said of people who (understandably in her view) prefer chocolate to coffee and tea.