DEAR MISS MANNERS: We gave a graduation gift in the amount of $100 to a friend of our son who has done quite a bit for him over the years. A couple of weeks passed, and my son got a check for the same amount as a graduation gift from his parents.
We really didn't want them to feel obliged to do this. Should we have included a note in our card that reciprocity was not expected or warranted?
GENTLE READER: Your discomfort, with which Miss Manners sympathizes, arises from the substitution of money for objects in social giving. While undoubtedly practical, as its adherents argue, it strips the custom of any pretence to thoughtfulness (thinking that others could use more money doesn't count) and charm.
In effect, you paid your son's friend for graduating; as your son is also graduating, they reciprocated. To fail to reciprocate would have declared an imbalance in the relationship, suggesting that their son was either more in want or more deserving than his friend.
You cannot quarrel with their using money as a present, because that was what you deemed appropriate to give. And if they gave $75, for example, they would look less generous than you, while if they gave $125, it would look as if they were purposely showing you up.
Now suppose that you had sent, instead, a particular piece of sports equipment that your son knew his friend wanted, and that the friend, knowing that your son was spending the summer traveling, had had his parents send a travel bag that was more suitable than the family luggage he might otherwise have taken.
Perhaps these presents might not have cost the same, but it wouldn't matter. The reciprocity would consist of each having made an effort to please the other.
Now you have no choice but to allow your son to accept the check with gracious thanks. But in the future, you might consider going back to the traditional practice of selecting presents rather than simply writing checks.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: How does one address a person one does not know, or even has any vague connection with, on a sympathy card?
I am often asked and expected to put a word of encouragement to a friend or acquaintance's friend's cousin whose daughter is going through surgery. I am at a loss for anything meaningful to write, and I feel like I am intruding on them. I usually either sign my name or say something such as "Thinking of you."
Is this acceptable? Is there something more appropriate to write? Alternatively, is there a polite way to decline offering my sympathy to a complete stranger while making it clear I bear them no ill will?
GENTLE READER: Let us go with the alternative. Sympathy is of comfort to the bereaved when it comes from those who care about them or cared about the deceased.
To have a stranger's generalized lamentation about death would, in Miss Manners' view, only confuse and therefore distress someone who is already emotionally overburdened. The well-meaning instigator needs to be told that, very, very gently.