DEAR MISS MANNERS: Since I retired four years ago, it has been my daily habit to take my newspaper to a coffee shop and drink coffee while I read. Occasionally, someone asks me to watch their laptop computer while they step away from their table. The first time it happened, the laptop was on a table directly behind me, and I would have had to pivot to watch it, and of course not be able to read. I declined her request with a "No," and she told me I was the meanest person she had ever met and something horrible would eventually happen to me. Needless to say, this experience was disconcerting. So I changed my tactic for succeeding requests and explained that although I would keep an eye on the laptop, I wouldn't intervene if someone came and snatched it. Thus, I was offering to interrupt my reading for their request, but not risk my own safety and well-being to confront a thief.
On the whole, this response hasn't been well received either, although one woman explained she read that merely making the request improves the statistics the laptop will not be stolen regardless of whether the person left behind actually watches it or not.
I'm at a loss to know how to respond to these requests politely and without giving offense, and I'm not sure the extent of my social obligations to guard a stranger's laptop computer in a public space upon request.
GENTLE READER: It's odd that people will ask strangers to protect their belongings from -- well, from strangers. This is common even in airports, where they fail to connect it with the security question of whether their luggage has been out of their hands.
Miss Manners agrees that you do not have to comply or even to supply a reason. But she insists that you respond politely. If you say, "I'm so sorry, but I can't," you might get a more benign response from someone who assumes you are about to leave. Probably not from the person who tried to put a curse on you, but from decent people.
Or you could say gently, "Sorry, but I'm not trustworthy." Because you are too engrossed in your book, of course; not that you are the one who should be watched.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My son and I have a disagreement about who should receive a thank you note.
He joined his girlfriend's family on a vacation when they were given the use of a beautiful house by a work acquaintance of the husband. I contend that my son needs only thank the family who invited him and not the owner of the house. The owner of the house gifted the use of it to the family and my son was their guest. He says both should be thanked. What is the correct etiquette?
GENTLE READER: Etiquette does not absolutely require a letter in such a case. But it strictly forbids parents from ever discouraging their children from writing thank you letters. Miss Manners suggests that you think of it as his giving his hosts another present -- that of hearing their benefactor say, "What a polite young man your daughter is seeing."