What is the social pay scale? How much will it cost you if someone you know gives birth, graduates, marries or dies?
Now that the ancient and charming custom of exchanging presents is deteriorating into simply paying people by the milestone, Miss Manners supposed that she would not have to become involved.
After all, the idea was to eliminate thoughtfulness. People anxious to be spared the thoughtful efforts of others to please them have long been selecting their own presents by means of the gift registry. Many now want to skip even that blatant bit of laundering to get their hands directly on the cash.
And many of their dear ones are only too happy not to have to give them another thought. Let's just pay the bill and be done with it, is their attitude.
The purpose of such dealings has always puzzled Miss Manners. Presuming reasonable reciprocity, what good does it do people in the same social or family circles to keep paying one another? Surely it has nothing to do with the custom of selecting and treasuring symbols of emotional ties.
However, if everyone is happy with the pay-as-they-go system, it is not for Miss Manners to interfere. Goodness knows it is entirely outside the realm of etiquette.
But it appears that not everyone is happy, and both sides of this commercial equation keep appealing to her. By far the most frequent etiquette question she receives -- dozens of them every week -- is, "What is the polite way to inform our guests that we want monetary gifts only?"
Some declare frankly that they expect their guests to help pay the wedding or honeymoon expenses, or their mortgage. Others explain that they already have everything they need, in which case Miss Manners would have thought they would be counting their blessings and thinking about helping the less fortunate.
The second most frequent question is from the targets of these demands, wanting to know how much they owe. Furthermore, they seem to believe that it depends on particular circumstances:
-- "What is the appropriate amount of money to give at a baby shower for someone I've met only twice?"
-- "What are the normal amounts of money to give to a niece graduating from high school with high honors, the neighbor's son who is graduating from law school, and my second cousin, whose family is having a dinner after the ceremony?"
-- "When going to a destination wedding that costs you money to fly, hotel, etc., what is a proper amount per couple or per person to give the bride and groom?"
--"How much money do I give as a wedding gift to my co-worker's daughter, whose wedding I am unable to attend?"
-- "How much money is appropriate to give to the daughter of your best friend from high school for her wedding?"
-- "What is the right monetary gift for two 30-something, already established professionals?"
-- "What is the appropriate cash gift for a mature wedding?"
-- "I am going to a wedding with my husband and three children, so there will be five people total. How much cash should I give? I think the plates are $80 apiece, but $400 is too much for us."
-- "How much money should you give the family at a wake?"
-- "My sisters and I traveled quite a distance to attend my oldest sister's funeral. My niece was appalled that our sympathy envelope did not contain any money. Although it has been a year, our niece is still fuming."
Please stop. Miss Manners cannot help you. Etiquette has no such thing as a chart that gives the cost depending on the relationship, the emotional bonds or the age. It considers both the hosts' and the guests' expenses irrelevant. Just go pick out something nice that you can afford. Or skip the whole panhandling event -- there are more worthy charities than people putting on expensive weddings.
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, email@example.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)