DEAR MISS MANNERS: Unexpectedly, in a rushed public place, I met my son’s girlfriend’s mother for the first time. During the introductions and short conversation, the mother complimented our son, saying she liked him very much and thought he was a nice boy.
When I did not reply with a compliment about her daughter, the woman said, “At this point, you should say something nice about my daughter.”
I indicated that I thought her daughter was very nice and we thought a lot of her. I then made my way out of the conversation, because we were in a bit of a rush and I was a bit put off.
My son came to our house and perpetuated the situation, telling me they thought I was rude not to have immediately reciprocated but had to be asked to do so. Should I apologize to his girlfriend, whom we really do like, or leave it alone? I don’t want to cause any hurt feelings.
GENTLE READER: Like dirty dishes, etiquette infractions become less appealing, and more work to clean up, as time goes by.
Miss Manners understands from your description that your failure to reciprocate was not a lack of goodwill toward the daughter -- or even a disagreement that returning the compliment was the right thing to do -- but rather a side effect of your being surprised by the meeting and distracted by the time.
Irrespective of whether the mother’s comment was meant to be humorous or rude, it provided you with an easy way to repair the damage: Compliment her daughter emphatically -- so emphatically that no one could miss your surprise at the merest suggestion that you are not enamored of her.
This is a good reflex to develop, particularly for people who find they do not always say the right thing instinctively. Not having done that, a bit more soap will be required. Explain to the girlfriend what happened, apologize profusely, and tell her how much you like her. She will report this back to her mother, and since it was the daughter who, in theory, was insulted, the mother will have no further justification for being upset. And if the mother does a hold a grudge, at least you will have the daughter on your side.