DEAR MISS MANNERS: I was at a small, socially distanced church service at a church I don’t regularly go to, although I have been there a couple of times over the past year. A few people there may recognize me.
At the end of the service, the priest announced that it was a parishioner’s 88th birthday. The gentleman in question appeared young and spritely for his age. As I was getting ready to leave, this gentleman approached me, and I wished him a happy birthday. He told me that we had met before, and even had dinner once. He listed off a few names of people who were at this supposed dinner, and then said it was at a certain resort in the 1980s.
Being several decades younger than him, my first thought was, “Oh my, do I look 88 years old?” However, he approached me with such sincerity and confidence that I realized he really did believe I was someone he had dinner with 40 years ago.
I laughed and said that it couldn’t have been me as I was a teenager in the ‘80s, and lived in Florida. He looked a little taken aback, then thanked me for his birthday wishes and walked away.
Having several friends who are dealing with parents with medical conditions that affect their memory, I realize now that maybe there was a more compassionate way to handle the situation. As I age, there may be more situations in which conversations like this arise. What is the best way to respond that would save face for everyone involved?
GENTLE READER: Two offenses were given: neither intentional, both related to age. You were offended when the gentleman mistook you for someone his age; he was offended when you laughed at the idea, thereby emphasizing his own advanced age. (On the positive side, you did not voice your guess that he is going senile.)
Why people are offended about growing older puzzles Miss Manners, but etiquette is about avoiding offending others -- reasonably or not, intentionally or not. The solution here is to edit out all the unnecessary information. Merely mistaking one person for another is slightly embarrassing, but, if handled properly, nothing more.
Miss Manners would therefore have answered with a charming smile and said that while it sounds like a lovely dinner, you are reasonably confident it was someone else -- that you are sorry to have missed the event, but you have never had the pleasure of visiting that resort.