DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have at many times read in the paper about people buying meals, etc., for others as a gesture of kindness. I have found myself in situations where I would like to show similar good will, but have been hesitant to do so for fear of insulting the intended recipient.
Two examples come to mind:
I was shopping at the local supermarket and observed an older gentleman with two little girls (undoubtedly his granddaughters), and they seemed to be shopping very selectively as if they did not have a great deal of money to buy everything they wanted. I wanted to give him $20 and tell him to buy his girls something good for dinner, but was unable to approach him because I didn’t want to insult him.
Another time I was flying home, and there was a young man in military uniform sitting across the aisle from me. When the flight attendant came around offering food for purchase, could I have told her, “I’ll take a snack box, and I’d also like to buy that gentleman whatever he wants”?
Please advise how I might delicately offer a gesture of good will in the future.
GENTLE READER: Which kind of good will do you want to offer?
One type is paying for someone for whom the cost might be difficult. Another is doing so to offer thanks. And a third is to start a flirtation.
In the case of the grandfather, you don’t really know that money was a problem. He may be teaching the girls to shop carefully and setting a limit, as any sensible adult would do.
In any case, how would he have explained a handout from you to them without embarrassment? The only polite way to have done this would have been to slip the money to the cashier, and, when he discovered his bill was already paid, to say, “You’re such an adorable family, I wanted to treat you.”
As for your fellow passenger, you could have asked if you could buy him a snack as a gesture of appreciation for his service. Miss Manners notes that you should then have been prepared for his interpreting it as flirtation.