DEAR MISS MANNERS: A group of friends and I are having a discussion regarding good manners and respect. My view is that respect comes from understanding and having good manners, whereas it is being put to me that good manners and respect are two distinctly separate things that can be had one without the other. We would be very interested in learning your thoughts on the matter, and I would consider them to be the final word on the subject.
GENTLE READER: Promising Miss Manners that her word will be the final one, even before you have heard it -- now that is respect. She thanks you.
Yet she admits that the term "respect" is rather loosely used in the manners business. This leads to the sort of argument in which a parent says, "You have to show more respect for Granny," and the child replies, "Why, since she just got out of jail for petty larceny?"
The sort of respect to which the parent is referring is a part of good manners. It means exhibiting consideration toward everyone and showing special deference to those who are older or in a position of authority.
But the child hears the word to mean the genuine admiration felt for someone who has proved himself to be worthy of it. That sort of respect is, indeed, a thing apart, which etiquette cannot mandate.
Manners require only that people show respect, although with the secret hope that the outward form will become internalized. What people feel as they size up individuals is up to them.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: When I express condolences to a friend or acquaintance over the death of an elderly parent, it frequently elicits a comment that I don't know how to respond to.
My parents died in a car accident when I was in my teens, so my sincere expression of sympathy is often countered with different versions of "Of course, my loss is nothing compared to yours." This is followed by a reiteration of the circumstances of my parents' death and the inference that I couldn't possibly relate to their devastation over the loss of a parent who has lived to see their grandchildren grow up.
This creates an awkward situation and makes me feel that I have to justify their feelings with, "Any loss is difficult, no matter when it occurs," which doesn't seem to satisfy their need to make me relive my childhood tragedy. Any advice on how to handle or short circuit a conversation that is occurring more often, now that people in my circle are of the age when their parents are dying from natural causes.
GENTLE READER: You are quite right, not only that comparisons should not be made, but also that your only hope of stopping them is to get out of that conversation, fast.
Miss Manners reminds you that you are talking to people who have just suffered a loss. After acknowledging that it is hard to lose a parent under any circumstances, you should rush into returning the focus on their loss. "Tell me more about your mother; I wish I'd known her better" or "I remember your telling me a delightful story about your father..." is the sort of remark to get them going.