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'PLEASE' ISN'T A MANDATE

Dear Miss Manners: "Please" is supposed to be a term of politeness, but it seems to me that there is a misuse when "please" is attached to a demand that is unreasonable, either because it is to do something flat-out wrong (such as punching someone else's time card) or physically impossible.

It seems to me that to preface the request with "Please, please, please" is even more of an insult than if it had been an outright demand. It amounts to a false accusation: "You could do this for me if you wanted to, and if you don't, you're just being mean."

I know of no response other than "I cannot do it; it is impossible, so please don't keep asking." This may not be very polite, but I have never claimed to be the world's most polite person.

Gentle Reader: Please allow the world's most polite person to assure you that your response was perfectly polite. Please, please, please.

And allow Miss Manners to sort out the problem for you: It's not the fault of the word. Please is an excellent word, without which we would be barking orders at one another every time we wanted the salt passed. What is rude is to persist in begging -- or, for that matter threatening -- people to do something they have declined to do.

Bait and switch

Dear Miss Manners: The potluck needs a new name and an appropriate ritual. A social gathering to which the participants have brought food to share has a long and honorable history.

It makes it possible for a large group to enjoy breaking bread together; it provides a varied menu that should please everyone; and it encourages participants to offer to host the next party, which benefits social ties -- surely the most important reason.

Like a picnic, it is the basis for many happy occasions. The organizers contribute thought, time and effort for their friends' entertainment and are entitled to call the results a party. I think it's good manners to come to the party ready to share and in a spirit of fun. I'll bring my famous Chinese chicken salad.

Gentle Reader: Oh, good, Miss Manners looks forward to that. But not if you show up with it when she has invited you to dinner, for the simple reason that she will already have prepared dinner and has no room for your famous Chinese chicken salad either on her menu or in her refrigerator.

If it is potluck to which she has invited you -- and that, too, is a ritual with a long and honorable history -- she will also provide dinner, but with the understanding that rather than providing a company meal, she expects you to take your chances with whatever might be in the pot.

So yes, the cooperative dinner can be useful and fun, but it needs a different name. In modern usage, "potluck" has come to mean bait-and-switch (if that term doesn't spoil your appetite and make the question moot) with people who accept what they think is a dinner invitation and then being told to provide the meal.

Lots of people enjoy belonging to groups or circles that make a habit of cooperative meals -- even Miss Manners, so she is not unfamiliar with the work involved in scheduling and planning. Volunteering to do so may make one gracious and popular, but it does not make one a host.

That, in fact, is the point: Everybody still has to have some say in what each would like to contribute, and nobody ever has to write a thank you letter. But somebody does have to come up with a better name.

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