DEAR MISS MANNERS: Certain events in our lives such as surgeries and graduations warrant acknowledgement through written correspondence by friends, and I've been through both. But what is the proper response to someone who, long after the event, sees me and says, "Oh, how are you doing? I meant to send you a get well card" or "Congratulations! I meant to send you a graduation card." In the past I've replied, "Thank you for thinking of me."
Along these lines, I've sent gifts across the country to have the recipients tell me on the phone, "I need to send you a thank you note." As I know she should send a note and am stunned by the rudeness of the remark, how can I reply to this?
GENTLE READER: Ah, yes, the attempt to make the word -- and a belated word at that -- substitute for the deed. Miss Manners does not care for the notion that knowing what should be done cancels the need to do it.
She likes your reaction to unsent letters. "Thank you for thinking of me" carries the implication that the thought didn't last, and is subtle enough to be polite. When it is phrased as "I need to send you ..." you may go a step further and reply, "I look forward to reading it."
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am an accommodating person, and my friends and long-time acquaintances have grown accustomed to my inability to refuse requests for favors. However, I have recently moved to a new town and am meeting new people. Can you suggest a polite way to decline to do a favor now that I have an opportunity to start afresh?
Recently, a co-worker needed me to cover for her for an evening class I assist her with. It was my husband's birthday and I had promised that we would not allow anything to intrude on our plans. To that end, I had mentioned weeks beforehand that I would not be available that evening and the day before specifically stated that I would not be present. The co-worker called with an emergency request for me to cover for her at 3:30 of the day in question. Despite my repeated statements that I was not available, could not cover for her this time and suggestions that she avail herself of the available substitute teachers, she continued to ask me to take over.
I finally said no again and excused myself. Now she is angry with me. How does one say no to this type of request without angering the other person? Is there a way to phrase the refusal that is both polite and yet unmistakably firm?
GENTLE READER: Your generosity is apparent in your worry that people who want to take advantage of you may become angry when you refuse to let them. Shouldn't you be angry at this co-worker who, with ample warning about your schedule, attempted to bully you into dropping your plans for her convenience?
Miss Manners has no wish to discourage generosity, much less to turn it into anger. But if you are rattled by emotional blackmail, such as you described, you will find yourself back in the position of doing whatever others ask. She hopes you will learn to regard those surly responses as yet another unwarranted, not to mention rude, attempt to take advantage of your good nature.