Preprinted Thank-You Notes? No Thanks, Even for Children

Dear Miss Manners: I’d like to get your opinion on children’s preprinted thank-you notes. I’ve seen a few where the body is printed out, but the child is required to fill in only the names of the giver, the gift and his or her name.

I think this is a good way to initiate my 3- and 5-year-olds to the etiquette of expressing gratitude for a gift, but my mother thinks they are impersonal and insulting, since they are not handwritten (by either me or the child).

I feel they are an appropriate way to teach children who are capable only of writing their names properly to thank someone who has been kind enough to give them a gift, and feel it is more personal than my writing a note and the child signing it, as it is obvious the effort has not been made entirely by them. What is your opinion?

Gentle Reader: That you are teaching your children to send thank-you letters is admirable. But why are you not teaching them how to compose them?

“Because they can’t write,” you respond, politely refraining (Miss Manners hopes) from adding, “Duh.”

True. You may have to do the actual writing. But you can teach them to do the thinking. Form letters are not cute, even from toddlers.

You should be questioning the children to extract the essentials of a letter of thanks: a specific, favorable reaction to the present; an expression of gratitude; and a bit of chattiness to establish the idea that it is not just the present that is valued, but the relationship.

This is not going to be easy. Any expressions of delight when opening the package should be noted, but those are not apt to be especially articulate. So the process goes something like this:

Parent: “What can we tell Aunt Tilda about how much you like the sweater?”

Child: “I wanted a fire truck.”

Parent: “I know. But it’s your favorite color. Isn’t purple your favorite color?”

Child: “Maybe.”

Parent: “What can you tell your aunt about what you’ve been doing?”

Child: “Nothing special.”

Parent: “Sure you did. We went to the museum, remember? What did we see?”

Child: “The food court.”

Parent: “Yes, but what else? Remember the dinosaurs? What were they like?”

Eventually, you can put together something that the child vaguely recognizes as his. And — even more eventually — it will teach him how to write a letter of thanks.

Dear Miss Manners: I have heard that it is not proper to thank people for Christmas gifts. This does not seem reasonable to me, especially when gifts have been packaged and mailed, and the giver is not present upon receipt. What is the official rule of etiquette about Christmas gifts?

Gentle Reader: Let Miss Manners guess where you are getting your etiquette information.

The subject arose with someone under an obligation to thank either you or another benefactor, such as that person’s grandmother. When you mentioned that, there was a counterattack in the form of a declaration that such an expectation was selfish, because true generosity exists for itself, not with any thought of being thanked.

Got that? The person who gave the present is condemned as ignoble by the very person who benefited but wouldn’t trouble to acknowledge it. Miss Manners trusts that you are not so naive as to fall for such sophistry.

Generosity and gratitude are permanently paired. Those would-be etiquetteers who declare expressing thanks to be no longer required have done only half the job. They must also then abolish the custom of giving — or, what always turns out to be the case with them — accepting presents.

Dear Miss Manners: I was raised on the East Coast in a home where we always used cloth napkins. I continue to use them. They are put back on the table and used another day.

My son and his wife were disgusted by this and said it must be a hangover from the austerity of the war years. I replace them when they seem to need it — sometimes several days. Is he right and I am wrong?

Gentle Reader: Perhaps he has a full-time laundress, and you do not.

And perhaps he has no idea what those fanciful round silver objects are, which are often elaborate, sometimes with whimsical themes, and carry engraved names or initials.

These are called napkin rings, functional items that once appeared even in fully staffed households. (A good laundress is hard to find, and one wouldn’t want to overtax her.) They are meant for family use only, never, as they are now sometimes used, as decorations for guests’ napkins.

You will notice that Miss Manners is refusing to consider the possibility that a properly reared son is trying to convert his parents to paper napkins.

Dear Miss Manners: It has happened again. Once more, my wife and I attended a lovely catered party in a reception facility, where the company was interesting and the hosts gracious and welcoming — and the “background” music was so loud that all the guests had to shout to be heard.

In this case, it was simply one guitarist-singer, but his amplification and the acoustics of the hall made it impossible to carry on any sort of normal conversation while he was playing. I am certainly not alone in this complaint, as several others at this otherwise pleasant affair also mentioned the unpleasantly excessive level of the music.

I should stress that I am not an old fogey, and I do like music of a considerable volume to dance to, but when there is no dancing, why can’t guests appreciate one another’s company without bellowing?

It is our experience that many, if not most, hosts seem oblivious to the fact that the musician they hired is making it difficult for people to enjoy themselves. This seems to be especially the case at wedding receptions, when the music is at “dancing level” during dinner.

Is there any polite way to ask a host or hostess to have the volume lowered? I have long ago given up asking musicians to tone it down; they simply ignore the request as an outrageous intrusion on their craft.

Gentle Reader: “Background music” is something Miss Manners has never understood. If it is good enough to listen to, it should not have to compete with conversation. If it is not good enough to listen to, it should not be played.

As for amplification, the problem is only going to get worse as the level deafens people who will then require even higher volumes.

But no, you really cannot tell your hosts that you are not enjoying their party. At most, you and someone with whom you want to talk can ask the hosts if there is someplace quieter where you can do so.

Dear Miss Manners: Is it considered bad manners to scrape one’s teeth on the fork when eating?

Gentle Reader: Yes, and it provokes other bad manners — a chorus of “Eeeewww, stop!”

Feeling incorrect? Email your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) from her website, www.missmanners.com, if you promise to use the black or blue-black ink you’ll save by writing those thank you, condolence and congratulations letters you owe.