DEAR MISS MANNERS: When I attended a friend's 30th birthday party, I, like many of the other guests, brought a gift. Normally, my friend and I e-mail or speak on the phone quite often, but after the party, I did not hear from her for well over a month, so I phoned her yesterday.
I phoned her only to catch up -- not to inquire about whether she had received the present. Frankly, I had nearly forgotten I'd given her one.
But my friend immediately brought up the gift, saying, "I'm really sorry -- I kept thinking I should write you a thank-you note, but I thought, 'Well, people from my culture don't really do that.' I never write thank-you notes for other (insert members of my friend's ethnic group here). But I guess maybe you would expect one."
After I got over my momentary surprise, I simply assured my friend I had not phoned her to ask about the present but that I was glad she had indeed received it. (Later during the phone call, she also thanked me for the present and said she liked it.) However, I was at a loss how to reply, to say the least, to her assertion that people of her ethnicity do not send formal thanks as well as her possible implication that people of my ethnicity somehow "expect" formal thanks -- as if I would be having too-high expectations of her or imposing some onerous burden.
I should add that my friend was born here and has lived her entire life in this country, speaks fluent English in addition to her parents' native tongue, and has a college degree (though she did grow up rather sheltered and in a community comprised overwhelmingly of her ethnic group). She also has several other friends and colleagues who do not share her ethnicity.
How does one reply to such comments?
GENTLE READER: Since you were not certain that your friend had even received the present, and had no idea about her reaction to it, Miss Manners gathers that this is not a question of supplementing verbal thanks with written thanks. There were no thanks at all until you happened to call.
Therefore Miss Manners would reply:
"Really? Tell me more about your culture and its rules. Do people keep giving presents and doing favors without any feedback? What stops them from getting discouraged when their efforts are met with silence? Or is it not the custom to be either generous or grateful?
"Do you follow all the customs of your culture? Even if they are repressive by American standards? Even if they seem rude to other Americans? How do you handle it when people who don't know your customs feel hurt?" And so on.
She would ask this in a gentle, teasing manner, but truthfully she is appalled by this increasingly popular excuse. It always seems to be used to get out of doing a basic courtesy, never for performing an unexpected one.
Furthermore, she has found that people who make this excuse are rarely experts, or even well-versed, in the cultures they claim to represent. On the contrary, they are only too ready to slander these cultures by claiming that they do not practice the universal trait of thanking.