You would think that Miss Manners ran the billing department. Here is a small sample of the messages that keep peppering her inbox.
“We are attending a wedding this weekend and want to give the couple money for a wedding present. What is the appropriate amount to give?”
“What is the expected amount of a gift card when the baby is not related?”
“How much money should you give to a niece for high school graduation?”
“What is considered today as an appropriate monetary wedding gift for a single male attending a large wedding (120 plus people) of his best friend’s daughter?”
“Will be attending a wedding of my grandson at a park with a picnic to follow. What is the correct cash gift etiquette?”
“What is an appropriate amount of money to give a high school graduate who is your husband’s best client’s daughter. We are attending a party in her honor, too. $50 or $100?”
Miss Manners has a question of her own:
What do these people expect? A firm amount, such as “$129.99 for weddings with $17 bonus if wedding dinner is edible”? A formula, such as “one-fifth of a percent of your disposable income for a baby who is related; one-tenth of a percent for one who is not”?
The sad thing that they do expect is that they are obligated to pay people for passing Go, and that there are understood to be admission fees for attending any related events. This is what the ancient and noble customs of giving presents and providing hospitality have come to: How much do I owe?
That is something people all have to decide for themselves. Any formula made without knowing the giver’s financial circumstances and the type and depth of the relationship to the recipient would be meaningless.
But then, giving friends and relatives money has rendered a charming gesture meaningless.
Miss Manners is aware that many find paying a welcome relief from having to put real effort into performing social duties, such as thinking about what present might please the particular recipient and about returning hospitality. Never mind that thoughtfulness and reciprocation are what these duties are all about, and, indeed, basic pleasures of civilized society.
After all, they reason, how can they go wrong (if only they could get Miss Manners to determine the correct amount)? Who doesn’t like receiving money?
Well, here’s a shock: Many people do not. Some are actually insulted to be paid by their peers. Some are disappointed that people they thought cared about them don’t care enough to think about them. Some just miss the fun of being surprised, delighted or amused by opening pretty packages.
And while they don’t yet realize it, all of them will miss the warm pleasure of living with little things associated with warm relationships.
If there is any warmth behind “OK, how much do I owe?” Miss Manners has missed it.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My nephew and I were having a discussion regarding eating ice cream at a business dinner. Is it considered bad manners to stir your ice cream until it is almost liquefied?
GENTLE READER: Smushing ice cream is a private pleasure. Miss Manners does not advise it at business dinners unless the desired impression is one of childish impatience. Does your nephew not know that dignified patience will have the same effect on his ice cream?