Dear Miss Manners: Since my companion of 30 years died suddenly, I have learned volumes about despair, survival and renewal. I have also learned that when someone dies, those still living often abandon their manners.
When I called a dear friend from the hospital emergency room after having just learned there was no hope, his response was, "I don't feel so good myself; I think I'm coming down with a cold." Five days after my beloved died, with me in a state of utter shock, friends began telling me, "The sooner you let go, the better."
Other friends volunteered their "being there" for me, then promptly disappeared for periods of four to 12 months. If I called them, they were flustered and "busy." When these friends came back into my life, almost frantically, they pressed me to resume our friendship as if nothing had taken place, except they didn't want any conversation about the dear departed.
Many friends and relatives expressed, and still express, a need to criticize my companion or make sure I don't regard him as an angel.
I've reacted to all this behavior as I suppose most bereaved people do. With so much energy devoted to just surviving, you accept bad manners, don't react to them or complain about them, or shut people out. And you vow to treat others who lose loved ones with caring and common sense.
What is it about death that makes people go manners-looney?
Gentle Reader: What you are describing is Miss Manners' best argument against natural, spontaneous behavior in its pristine state, untouched by the artificiality of etiquette.
These people have nothing to gain by being rude -- on the contrary, they probably wish you well. But either because they have never learned the proper way to show sympathy for the bereaved or because they don't feel bound by conventional etiquette, they are letting you see frankly how people react to death when it touches them only indirectly.
The natural response is for people to think primarily about themselves, and consider that their own troubles, however objectively small, loom far larger to them than other people's tragedies. When they are not affected emotionally, they find death discomforting and bereavement tiresome, which is why they try to hurry you past yours, either by glib advice, or by staying away from you until they figure that it surely must be over.
Manners are intended to develop a sense of the needs of others, and etiquette provides the intelligible means of expressing this. Unmannerly people may not be malevolent, but, as you have discovered, they are callous all the same. The effect of their behavior is not much different than if they had deliberately chosen to be cruel.
Refusing a tip
Dear Miss Manners: As a beautician, I sometimes know more about my customers than I care to, including if they are between jobs or have a grave illness in the family. When these clients offer me a tip afterward, I feel awkward accepting it when I know they need every penny they can save.
I know this is a trivial thing, but is there ever a tactful way to refuse a tip in such circumstances, or should I say nothing?
Gentle Reader: Trivial? Dignity and compassion in a world of callousness and greed are not what Miss Manners would call trivial. She can't remember the last time she got a question about tipping that wasn't either about how to get more or give less.
Not that this is an easy one. As you understand, one must spare people's feelings, as well as their other resources. But these people have put themselves on confidential terms with you without, Miss Manners gathers, any prompting on your part. She therefore cannot imagine that they would consider it intrusive for you to respond to their tips by saying kindly, "Thank you -- but when times are better."