DEAR MISS MANNERS: What has happened to the art of small talk? It is, or used to be, a style of conversation that exchanges small ideas and small questions, enabling people to know each other better. It should make a person more comfortable.
Starting with, “How do you know the host?” is a good idea. Asking “Do you work near here?” is less intrusive than “What do you do?” and lets the person tell as much as they want. If I have met the person before, I might ask, “Are you still working at ____?” In turn, the person would ask a question such as, “Are you still involved with your hobby?”
I was at a child’s birthday party where there were more adults than children. It was a small gathering, and I have known all the guests several years. I asked each person questions about their work, their family, hobbies, etc.
Everyone seemed comfortable giving me updates on their lives, but not one person asked me a single question. Not one person, not one question, though we did share stories related to the questions I asked. They all know I am involved with volunteering and what my hobbies are. They know me enough to ask me about my life. Except for two other adults, everyone there was a generation or two younger than me.
Am I feeling sorry for myself? Am I being selfish? Am I expecting too much of the younger generation?
GENTLE READER: People who only talk about themselves are a bore in any generation. But as you had the next generation readily at hand, Miss Manners would have switched to engaging the children. This assumes they were young enough to learn that their elders may have interesting stories to tell – and requires that you be interesting.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a trained singer with many years of experience singing at weddings, as well as general performance. About a year ago, I helped someone who worked at my daughter’s school, who was in a bind because her singer had dropped out three weeks before the wedding. I offered to sing for her wedding, which she offered to pay me for, since I had to travel two hours.
I was invited to the reception, as well. I gave a card, but not a cash gift, and I feel that I offended by not doing so.
I am now singing for a much closer friend, who has invited me to the reception, as well. I plan to sing for free as a gift to her (and her parents), but since I am going to the reception, should I not also give a gift? I don’t want to end up feeling guilty again.
GENTLE READER: Putting aside the point that presents are not, strictly speaking, required, even of wedding guests (they are supposed to want to give), Miss Manners asks you to look into your soul – if not your performance agreement – to determine in what capacity you are attending.
Friends and family give presents; paid performers do not. Unfortunately, one can, as in your first example, be both, in which case a present is a kind gesture. She is, however, unconvinced by the argument that waiving your usual fee can serve as the gift: Nonprofessional friends may participate in the wedding as well, and their gift is no less valuable. Which is why many performers avoid singing at friends’ weddings.
Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com.
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