DEAR MISS MANNERS: My husband and I have been acquainted with another couple, Mary and Ethan, for 20 years. While never the best of friends, we've had the sort of friendly relationship that develops among parents of same-age children who participate in school and extracurricular activities together. As our children have grown, the time we spend with this couple had dwindled, and now we see each other only occasionally when we are out in the community.
Last month, Ethan was convicted of a federal crime and will spend the next five years in prison. Yesterday, I ran into Mary while shopping. We exchanged pleasantries, she inquired about my husband and children, and I inquired about her children.
I did not inquire about Ethan, as I was unsure what to say, and did not want to put her in an awkward situation.
Later, I wondered if I had behaved correctly. Since Mary had inquired about my husband, was it rude for me not to inquire about hers? I could hardly pretend not to know that Ethan is in prison, since it was headline news in our community. But I certainly couldn't ask, "How is Ethan enjoying prison?" So I said nothing at all.
Was I correct in avoiding the subject, or should I have said something -- expressed condolences, perhaps?
GENTLE READER: You should have said something, but not too much. Like so many people, you are under the impression that tragedy is an all-or-nothing situation for outsiders -- that you should either pretend that it doesn't exist or initiate a thorough discussion of the matter, replete with opinions and suggestions.
Yes, you should have said something, but Miss Manners is afraid that even "How is Ethan?" won't quite do. If the lady does not wish to discuss the matter, she can hardly be expected to choke out "Fine, thank you."
You are better off with a statement, rather than a question. Something as simple as "Please tell Ethan we are thinking of him" will show sympathy without getting into the question of justice.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My friend is selling cosmetics through word-of-mouth contacts. She asked me to try out her product line, and I declined, explaining I was skeptical about the company's claims.
About a month later, she called again to ask for names of other friends she could contact. I told her I couldn't give her friends' names in good conscience because I didn't believe in the product myself, although I wished her well in her business venture.
Since that time, it has become clear to me she is not talking to me, beyond the obligatory terse response to a direct question. Am I taking too hard a line on this? Should I give her the names of friends, as she asks?
GENTLE READER: So she can annoy them, too? Don't you like your friends?
Why you want to placate this one, Miss Manners cannot understand. She has dropped you as a friend and has made it clear that she is only interested in you as a customer or the provider of customers.