DEAR MISS MANNERS: On two occasions, now, I have made the acquaintance of someone who had spent time in prison. One person admitted the fact right upfront upon our meeting. On the other occasion, the fact was already common knowledge in the social circle we share, and I learned it before meeting the person.
I am familiar with standard getting-to-know-you conversation questions such as "How do you make your living?" or "Where did you first meet your spouse?" But somehow "Soooo.., um, Charlie, um, what's it like in prison?" just doesn't have the right feel.
Is it acceptable to ask a former prisoner what he did time for? I've never heard any etiquette rules address the question. What would you advise as to what may and what may not be asked?
GENTLE READER: Personal questions to strangers are never safe. Consider yourself lucky if no one has yet burst into tears when you asked how she makes a living (because she's been on the job market for nearly a year) or how he met his spouse (because his spouse just met someone else).
But Miss Manners acknowledges that you could hit a new low in casual chatter by peppering someone with questions about his crime and punishment. She also acknowledges that nowadays, an amazing number of people do want to talk to mere acquaintances about matters one would think embarrassing, but you still have to let them ask.
You may be sure that someone who wants to talk about himself will find a way to work it into the conversation. The person who announced it upfront could have been asked a nonaggressive question, such as "How was it?" or "What were the circumstances?" If others are ready to talk, you need only say "Nasty weather we've been having" to allow them to reply "You have no idea how hard these thunderstorms are on cat burglars."
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My daughter will be in a society ball where the guest tables are quite expensive and must be reserved/purchased as a full table. Two tables of 10 will accommodate my immediate family and the mother and guest of my daughter's escort.
My dilemma is that two of my siblings are single. One of them has an on-and-off relationship. We are very fond of this sibling's friend. Is it wrong to invite the two siblings without specifying a guest?
GENTLE READER: Normally, Miss Manners is the first to say that before people accept or decline invitations, they should decide whether they would find the occasion, the hosts and the host's other guests' company sufficiently entertaining, and not expect to bring their own guests.
But this is a ball, which means that dancing is the main feature of the evening, not incidental, as at a wedding. You could line up friends who will ask your siblings to dance, but you cannot simply leave them to sit through the evening while others take to the dance floor.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: This is my first year in business for myself. I would like to show excellent customer care by sending Christmas cards to my customers whom I've worked for in the past year. Are there any specific rules I should follow so as not to offend my customers?
GENTLE READER: Rule 1 would be: Don't send Christmas cards.
Most people will not be offended, but neither are they likely to be charmed. Unless you are on particularly friendly terms with them, many will regard your card as another form of printed advertising. Even less charmed will be your clients who are not Christian, or who are, but do not celebrate Christmas.
Before you protest that you mean well (and everyone else protests at Miss Manners' horrid attitude), she has another suggestion. Write a short note of appreciation with your own hand, as a sort of end-of-the-year appreciation, and say nothing about Christmas.