DEAR MISS MANNERS: What, precisely, is a "letter of introduction"?
Characters in novels from the 19th and early 20th centuries use them whenever they come to a town unfamiliar to them, but I have never heard of one used in the 21st Century. Were they ever anything more than a novelistic conceit? Or were they used in the Old World but not the New? Or are they still used and I am just very ignorant?
GENTLE READER: Letters of introduction did, and still do, exist. Sort of. But considering that we live in a world of computer arranged assignations and virtual friendships, perhaps Miss Manners should explain what an introduction is.
People used to meet through other people whom they already knew. Without what was known as "a proper introduction," they were not supposed to form new social bonds.
Now this may sound very snobbish and pokey to you, but it did have its advantages. For example, the person who introduced you to that charming gentleman knows whether he is married. Or if he is unattached, whether parts of his first wife were found buried in the garden.
Ordinarily, an introduction was performed with all parties present and, in the case of a lady, with her permission beforehand to introduce her to a gentleman. However, at a social gathering where the host presumably knew everybody even if he was busy making sure they all had drinks, all those attending could consider themselves introduced to one another. "The roof is an introduction" was the statement that covered that.
Letters were written when the object was to acquaint a friend who was moving or traveling with another friend at that place. That was what you encountered in novels: "This is to introduce my dear friend who will be in Paris for the fall, and would be a delightful addition to your circle..." The letter would be left unsealed on the assumption that the person being introduced, to whom it was entrusted for personal delivery, was too honorable to read it. Miss Manners will let you make of that what you may.
Presumably, people are still saying, "Oh, you must look up my friend" and, if they happen to remember, firing off e-mail messages to warn the out-of-towners.
However, there is also a more formal letter of introduction still being written on paper -- the letter to introduce, or more accurately recommend, a newcomer to an organization, such as a private club. "This is to introduce Mr. William Wombat, who will be in your city for two weeks, and to request that he be given visitor privileges in your distinguished club..." It is implied, and therefore not necessary to state, that the writer promises that the gentleman can be trusted not to steal the forks.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: How can I best explain the proper etiquette for those times my mid-teen is invited out for dinner by his friend's family? I understand that he has ordered more expensive meals than those of others at the table. Unless he's paying, there must be a rule of thumb for a guest to follow.
GENTLE READER: There is, and it was told to ladies who didn't want to look piggy: "Order from the middle of the menu." Miss Manners considers that it applies equally to gentlemen who have the good fortune to be taken out for dinner and do not want to discourage their hosts from inviting them ever again.