DEAR MISS MANNERS: Please explain why there is apparently a now-universal compulsion to answer the phone, whether cell or landline, under any or all circumstances, and, having once answered it, to deal with whoever is on the other end at the expense of the person you were dealing with previously. Surely the people who engage in this -- and in my experience, that's almost everyone -- must recognize how rude the practice is. But apparently they don't, since there's rarely an apology, and they proceed as if the behavior is completely appropriate and normal.
Given how widespread the phenomenon is, I thought that perhaps I'm just being old-fashioned and out of tune with the times (clearly the latter). Something beyond mere manners must be going on here given how widespread the practice is.
Have the phone companies somehow programmed us to act in this Pavlovian manner? If so, it wouldn't be a manners issue and Miss Manners might be excused for not wishing to address it.
GENTLE READER: Programmed behavior is indeed within the purview of manners. We are the ones who advocate seizing innocent babes and programming them to say "please" and "thank you" before they know or care what these mean.
However, the reaction you mention is indeed rude. Miss Manners blames Alexander Graham Bell, who blurted out "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you" (where was the "please"?) when he tried out his infernal machine on his assistant. This established the idea that a telephone summons was an imperial command that could not be safely ignored.
Why years of inconsequential blathering has not dispelled that notion Miss Manners cannot say. But to this day, the urge to attend to the telephone is the only force on Earth stronger than greed. You can easily test this out by attempting to hand money to a salesperson when a telephone begins to ring.
That it is rude to ignore those in person in favor of voices from the distance does not seem to make much of an impression, as you noticed. The blessings of the answering machine, caller ID and voicemail combined have only driven the rude to make inaccurate counteraccusations of rudeness on the part of those who do not jump to the bell.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I recently had several friends (and associated people) stay at my home while they were fleeing from a hurricane. After their departure, several of the associated people sent small, appropriate tokens of appreciation to me thanking me for letting them stay with me.
Should I acknowledge those gifts with a thank-you note? It would seem that by doing so I am starting a vicious circle, but do not want to be rude in the face of their politeness. So, should I acknowledge a thank-you gift with a thank-you note?
GENTLE READER: "Vicious circle" is hardly the term Miss Manners would select to describe such a gracious exchange of courtesies. But aside from her hope that you would want to keep in touch with these people to see how they are doing, you need not worry that acknowledging their kindness is an imposition. Letters of thanks do not require replies, but hospitality and presents do. Therefore, your required letter of thanks for their present to thank you for your hospitality does not require another letter.