Miss Manners

DEAR MISS MANNERS: The conventional response to “How are you?” is “Fine, thank you.” What do you recommend for a response when things are not at all fine?

“Fine, thanks, and I’m calling to tell you that our granddaughter’s funeral will be on Friday” or “I’m fine, thank you. I’m on my way out the door, because my doctor just called and said to come in immediately and to be prepared for very bad news” just don’t work.

Surely there is a standard form for saying that you are not doing well without encouraging prying on their part or whining on mine.

GENTLE READER: “Could be worse”? But perhaps things hardly could be.

As you point out, “How are you?” is a convention, only one step up from the traditional greeting of “How do you do?” (to which the answer is “How do you do?”). Anyone who is anxious about your health will peer into your eyes and say, “Tell me, how are you really?”

So the trick is that if you skip answering, no one will notice. In both examples you give, you could have gone right to the follow-up statement. Miss Manners believes you could also get away with nothing more than a hearty, “And how are you?”

DEAR MISS MANNERS: My wife and I were extremely happily married for more than 45 years. We virtually never fought and only wanted to be together.

My wife suddenly died, without warning, approximately four months ago. We both come from very close families and we have several children of our own.

I have been very lonely since her death. I am getting older and do not want to spend the rest of my life alone. But I also do not want to cause problems with any family members who might think that I was not being loyal to the memory of my late wife.

How long would you say it is appropriate to wait before starting to look for another companion?

GENTLE READER: It would be cruel of those who care about you to want to add to your sadness by condemning you to loneliness, but such is often the case. However, ambiguity is on your side.

“Dating” is such a loose term these days that you needn’t admit to it. What you are proposing to do is to “get out a bit and see some friends, to relieve the grief.” Surely no one could object to that.

And it could include seeing new friends, but Miss Manners does not recommend searching for them on any site frequented by your relatives. If a serious relationship evolves -- and you know enough about what that constitutes to proceed cautiously -- there will be time enough to inform them.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: On what occasions is it not proper to compliment someone -- on dress, accomplishments, etc.?

GENTLE READER: It is always proper to compliment people on their accomplishments. On dress, only when you know them socially, not professionally. And on “etc.,” Miss Manners suspects you’d better not.

(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, dearmissmanners@gmail.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)

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